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The Difference Among Food Allergy, Sensitivity and Intolerance


Although most of us use words such as food allergy, sensitivity and intolerance interchangeably, they are not the same. I learned this on my journey to find out which foods are causing me intestinal problems, in this case via a blood test. Fortunately, my handy dandy Lifestyle Eating and Performance (LEAP) MRT® Report (copyright Oxford Biomedical Technologies, Inc., version 8.17.20) provides a comprehensive, understandable tutorial on the subject which I thought I’d share with you in case you have any confusion about these terms. 

The short distinction is thus: “The general consensus is that food allergy can be defined as any adverse reaction to food that involves our immune system”: food allergy and food sensitivity. “Food intolerance does not involve the immune system.”

In a food allergy, the immunological triggering mechanism is called IgE and the most common food allergies are “peanuts, other nuts, shellfish, or foods containing sulfites. Food allergy affects 1-2% of the population and accounts for only a small percentage of all adverse food reactions.” Reactions occur shortly after eating and are a regular response to eating a food. Food allergies are usually acute and rarely chronic.

A food sensitivity can take anywhere from 45 minutes to several days for symptoms to occur in any body organ system. This is why they often go unnoticed and undiagnosed. Found in 20-30% of the population, they are usually chronic and rarely acute.

With food intolerance, digestive symptoms are similar to those of food sensitivity, but do not involve the immune system. Instead, they occur because of a malfunction in the gut which leaves them undigested and, therefore, likely to ferment. Lactose is a common food intolerance.

Many clients tell me that they have physical reactions—from cramps to bloating—to mental manifestations from eating certain foods. Whether you suffer from a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance, the best response—the only sensible one—is to find out which you are experiencing and which foods are the offenders. This action is nothing more than basic self-care. 

Talk with your primary care doctor about what’s going on. Also, a Registered Dietician (not simply someone who calls themselves a nutritionist) can be extremely helpful, as these issues are (excuse the pun) their bread and butter. And don’t be surprised if your digestive problems are tied into your eating disorder. They often go hand in hand.




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