Food allergies affect about 7 percent of children and 1 percent of adults in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (ref 2) Food allergies develop with continued exposure to the food that your body thinks is harmful and are typically diagnosed in childhood. If you have not received a diagnosis or are not vigilant on eliminating the allergen from your diet, complications such as inflammation, weight gain, or weight loss may happen. A food intolerance, however, is much more common. According to the Cleveland Clinic, nearly everyone at some point has experienced a sensitivity to something they've eaten.(ref 2)
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A Food Allergy
A food allergy is an immune system response that occurs when your body reacts adversely to a protein found in a specific food. Your body mistakes this protein as harmful and creates antibodies to fight it. The most common food allergens are cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Common symptoms you may experience related to a food allergen can include, but are not limited to, unexplained rash on the body, stuffy or itchy nose, vomiting, stomach cramps, swelling, and throat tightness. (see ref 1)
A Food Sensitivity or Intolerance
A food sensitivity or intolerance is a digestive response. The food may be irritating your digestive system or your body may not be able to properly digest the food. (ref 2) Corn products, cow's milk and dairy, as well as wheat and other gluten-containing grains, are among the top reported food sensitivities.(see ref 5) Lactose intolerance, or difficulty digesting the enzyme lactase, is the most common food intolerance, affecting about 10 percent of Americans.(See ref 2) Symptoms of food sensitivity can be: nausea, stomach pain, cramps or bloating, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, headaches, or general nervousness. Unfortunately, a food allergy may be confused with a food intolerance because the symptoms overlap, leading to unnecessary and potentially challenging dietary changes.
Complications of Food Allergies and Intolerances
Anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening whole-body allergic reaction, is the most commonly known complication of food allergies. Food allergies can also trigger or worsen asthma and eczema among other disorders. (ref 5) Weight gain in response to food allergies is being researched but does not have a definitive response within the medical community. Dee Sandquist, a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests that any weight gain experienced is more likely related to bloating and fluid retention than true weight gain of adipose (fat) tissue.
Managing Food Allergies and Intolerances
Managing food allergies is all about avoiding the allergen. A registered dietitian can teach you what to look for on food ingredients lists and how to alter your meal prep, cooking and dining out experience to completely eliminate the allergen.(See ref 4)
Managing a food intolerance depends on how the food culprit affects your system. The first step is to learn which food and in what amount is causing your symptoms, often determined through a food journal or an elimination diet. With elimination diets, you avoid the suspected food until your symptoms disappear. Then you start eating the foods again to see if you develop any adverse symptoms. (ref 5) Work with a specialized registered dietitian to learn how to alter recipes and make appropriate substitutions.