THERE IS AN INCREASING TREND TO EAT gluten-free, to avoid dairy and to cut out sugar. People are doing this whether they are allergic, intolerant or neither. Is what you eat just a (healthy) preference or is there something more going on? In this post I will explain the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance.
FIRST, LET’S HAVE A LOOK at this diagram. It pretty much explains what is going on.
FOOD HYPERSENSITIVITY (having an adverse reaction to any food) can be divided into two subgroups.
FOOD ALLERGY IS when eating certain foods causes an allergic reaction. It means that a food activates the immune system, causing a reaction similar to when the immune system reacts to any bacteria or virus: inflammation. The pillars of inflammation are redness, pain, swelling, itchiness, and eventually loss of function. This is what a person who is allergic to certain foods experiences when their immune system is exposed to that food (or to other molecules that look like molecules in this food). The reaction can be mild, or more severe, and can even lead to potentially lethal anaphylactic shock, in which an Epi pen needs to be administered straight away to prevent death. What is happening in the body, is that immune cells are basically triggered by the food to go crazy bonkers, completely forgetting everything else other than their need to react to this “bad guy” food! Gluten allergy (Celiac disease) is a good example of a food allergy, causing inflammation of the intestinal wall.
EXAMPLES OF FOOD ALLERGY FOODS: peanuts, shellfish, soy, eggs, wheat.
FOOD INTOLERANCE, on the other hand, is a completely different issue. Food intolerance is brought about when our body has difficulty digesting certain foods. For example, lactose intolerance is caused by missing an enzyme that breaks down lactose (this enzyme is called lactase (notice it ends with the phrase -ase, just as most enzymes)). People who cannot break down lactose end up experiencing side-effects when consuming milk products, such as bloating or diarrhea. This is in no way pleasant, but it is much different than the activation of the immune system seen in food allergies. Aversion to certain foods is also a form of food intolerance. Disliking the flavor and becoming nauseated by a smell of certain foods, are other examples food intolerance.
EXAMPLES OF FOOD INTOLERANCE FOODS: cow’s milk, goat’s milk, cheese, gluten (gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating without inflammation of the bowels), certain vegetable, certain fruit.
SO, DID YOU start reading this post thinking that you are allergic to certain foods and now realise that what you are experiencing is food intolerance? Or perhaps even the other way around?
I HOPE THIS POST HELPS you distinguish between these widely used terms. I find the term food allergy to be thrown around quite a bit, although people with true food allergies know the severe extent of it, and how many things they have to double-check and avoid. Living with a food allergy can be a challenge, as can living with a food intolerance, both in its own way.
Images from allergycentre.com.my , healthyeats.mobi.