Find out whether its a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity

Is it a sensitivity, an intolerance or a full-blown allergy? Chatelaine goes to the experts to get all the answers and help you choose your best options.
Find out whether its a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity

Photo by Corbis

Peek in the window of any hot restaurant on a Friday night and you're bound to spot countless people agonizing over the menu options. What are they going to eat? More importantly, what can they eat?

One in 13 Canadians now suffers from a food allergy — and experts say the numbers are rising. It’s not just the usual suspects anymore either. Sure, nuts, eggs and dairy still top the list of allergens, but wheat, soy and fish are also causing reactions. And with celebs like Rachel Weisz and Halle Berry reportedly suffering from food-related afflictions, there’s more awareness than ever. “Allergens can hide everywhere, from seasonings to sauces,” says Desiree Nielsen, a Vancouver-based dietitian. This is a big part of the reason more people are experiencing reactions from their intolerances and sensitivities.

Use this guide to get the lowdown on the differences between allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, so you can navigate restaurant menus and grocery aisles with ease.

Photo by Corbis Photo by Corbis

Food allergy What it is: Allergies are caused by an immune system reaction that releases IGE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies and chemicals like histamines. When the body is allergic to a food, symptoms usually begin with strange sensations like tingling and swelling. Food allergies can be scary, because a reaction can become very severe, very fast. Even a microscopic piece of an offending food can lead to swollen eyes, asthma, hives or abdominal cramps. Your throat might even swell, cutting off your airway. This is known as anaphylaxis. Without treatment, it’s deadly. The only way to diagnose a food allergy is by a blood or skin test performed by your doctor. Steer clear of at-home allergy-test kits, which may not be reliable or accurate.

How to deal: With food allergies, the smartest approach is to cut the offender from your diet. Thankfully, the most common food allergens — including nuts and wheat — must be listed on Canadian labels. If you have a serious allergy and you’ve been prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, keep it with you at all times. For allergies that are less severe, carry antihistamines, and if you do have a reaction, follow up with your doctor.

Food intolerance What it is: Intolerances happen when the body is unable to digest or absorb certain foods or components (sugar, chemicals, etc.). For example, lactose-intolerant people are missing a specific digestive enzyme called lactase, which is needed to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Symptoms vary and are sometimes mistaken for a food allergy, but unlike allergy symptoms they are not the result of an immune system response. Food intolerances cause discomfort — often sneezing, headache or gastrointestinal issues (cramps, bloating, diarrhea) — but they aren’t life-threatening. And you usually need to consume a lot of the offending food to even experience symptoms. Unlike allergy symptoms (which are immediate), the body’s reaction to an intolerance may not appear for a few days and can last longer.


How to deal: Intolerances are different for everyone. Some people with a lactose intolerance may be able to tolerate yogurt and cheese, while others can’t eat any dairy at all. “Meet with a physician and a dietitian to figure out a plan,” says Nielsen. And track your food intake and symptoms in a journal for about a month before your appointment, suggests Dr. Paul Keith, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. If you have only mild symptoms, such as itching and hives, Keith recommends taking an antihistamine. If symptoms are unbearable, it’s best to try to avoid the food altogether (or be prepared to deal with the consequences).

Food sensitivity What it is: Scientists have not yet pinpointed the exact difference between a food sensitivity and an intolerance, and in many cases they’re similar. Food sensitivity is an umbrella term for any food reaction, but the phrase is often used to describe chemical sensitivities, to substances like caffeine in coffee or tyramine in aged cheese. Symptoms vary from bloating and digestive discomfort to mental fog or tiredness and sometimes occur up to four days after eating the food.

How to deal: Sensitivities are usually manageable once they’re identified, but they’re the most difficult to diagnose: People who struggle with a sensitivity can sometimes eat the food without any problems, but other times, they’ll develop symptoms like acid reflux, nausea and cramps. “Chemical additives, preservatives and dyes may be poorly tolerated by the body,” says Nielsen. “One way to avoid problems is to eat less processed food.” As with an intolerance, it’s best to keep track of how you feel in a daily food journal and follow up with your doctor if symptoms begin to aff ect your quality of life.

Top 10 most common food allergies

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Mustard
  • Peanuts
  • Seafood
  • Sesame
  • Soy
  • Sulphites
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

Do you suffer from any food allergies or intolerances? Tell us what they are in the comment section below.


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