Food Sensitive or Allergic? What’s the Difference? a useful guide to the difference between allergies and sensitivities.


Food Sensitive or Allergic? What’s the Difference?

Food allergies are more common than you might think. In fact, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 6 million children in the United States—or 8 percent of all kids under the age of 18—have a food allergy.

While that number might seem high, it’s important to understand that not every adverse reaction to food is an allergy. In fact, true allergies are relatively uncommon. Most reactions to food that cause uncomfortable symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain are actually food sensitivities.

You may be wondering what the difference is between a sensitivity and an allergy. The answer lies in your immune response. When you have a food sensitivity, your body reacts to something in the food that doesn’t agree with it. But when you have a food allergy, your immune system goes into overdrive and mistakes harmless proteins (called antigens) found in the offending food for dangerous invaders. This causes your body to produce IgE antibodies, which trigger histamine release and set off allergic symptoms ranging from mild (hives) to life-threatening (anaphylaxis).

A food allergy can appear at any time during your life

People often ask me about the difference between food sensitivities and allergies, so I thought I would address this question.

First of all, I’d like to stress that both food sensitivities and allergies are immune responses to a particular food or foods.

The symptoms can range from mild to very severe, depending on the person, the food(s), the amount eaten, and how often it is eaten.

Symptoms can also vary from one exposure to another. For example, you may be fine if you eat a small amount of a food one day, but have a severe reaction if you eat more of the same food the next day.

The term “allergy” is generally used when the symptoms affect multiple systems in your body (e.g., skin rashes, respiratory problems, digestive problems, etc.). The term “sensitivity” is generally used when only one system is affected (e.g., headaches). But these terms are not rigidly defined, so don’t take them too literally!

Food allergies and sensitivities are very common; in fact, many people have them but aren’t aware of it because they don’t know what symptoms to look for or they just assume that their symptoms are “normal” for them.

For example,

If you’re like the millions of Americans who suffer from food sensitivities or allergies, you know how challenging those ailments can be. It’s tough to enjoy a meal when you know that it could cause you serious digestive distress (at best) or a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction (at worst).

But even if you’re one of these people, it’s still possible to eat healthy and feel great. The key is knowing what category your particular “problem” falls into. Here are the differences between food sensitivities and allergies:

Food Intolerances

Food intolerances are the least serious of the three categories and include lactose intolerance and gluten sensitivity. Lactose intolerance means your body can’t digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in dairy products. Gluten sensitivity means your body can’t process foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other grains.

Food intolerances typically cause uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating in sensitive people. They can also cause headaches in some cases. A food intolerance is not life-threatening; however, long-term exposure to certain foods (like gluten) may cause damage to the digestive tract and other internal organs, so avoiding them is important for overall health.

Food Sensitivities

People with food

The Difference Between Allergies and Sensitivities

There is a difference between food allergies and sensitivities. A food allergy involves an antibody response to the offending food. This is known as an IgE response. There are two types of antibodies (IgG, IgA, IgM, and IgE), but in this case we are referring to antibodies produced in response to the body’s being attacked by a virus or bacteria (IgG and IgA) or in response to a true food allergy (IgE). When you have an allergic reaction, your body produces a large amount of histamine, which can cause itching and swelling, hives, a rash or gastrointestinal problems.

Food sensitivities do not involve the production of antibodies. Instead they tend to involve delayed reactions that cause inflammation throughout the body. The inflammatory response can be anywhere from a few hours up to three days after eating the triggering food. Symptoms include headaches, brain fog, joint pain, itchy skin, digestive problems or irritability.

Food allergies tend to be more immediate and stronger responses than sensitivities; however, people can be sensitive without having an allergy.

Food Sensitivities Can Cause Inflammation Throughout the Body

In my practice I work with patients who have

If you have a true food allergy, your immune system has decided that a particular food is harmful and treats it like an infection. Food allergies are not as common as food sensitivities or intolerances, but they can be life-threatening. The most common allergens include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish, shellfish and wheat.

With a food sensitivity or intolerance, your body doesn’t react to the food in the same way as with an allergy. Food intolerance is much more common than true food allergies. For example, lactose intolerance is a food sensitivity that causes belly pain and bloating when you eat dairy products. It’s an example of how your body may lack certain enzymes that allow you to digest a certain type of food. Other examples include fructose intolerance (which occurs when you can’t digest fructose) and gluten sensitivity (also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity).

If you are like most people, you may have noticed that certain foods make you feel sluggish, tired, foggy, irritable or even cranky. You might be one of the millions of Americans who experience adverse reactions to foods but don’t realize it’s happening.

Snow, changing leaves and school buses are all signs that fall is on its way. The change of seasons also signals a change in the foods we eat. In the fall and winter months, many people start to crave warm and hearty comfort foods, like soups and stews, and often reach for vitamin C-rich citrus fruits to boost their immune system.

It is well known that vitamin C is essential for growth and repair of tissues in all parts of your body. It helps heal wounds and form scar tissue; it keeps the cartilage, bones and teeth healthy; it aids in iron absorption; it helps maintain healthy gums; it helps prevent bruising; and more.


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