Do you always feel sick after eating a certain type of food? Although you may self-diagnose yourself with a food allergy after experiencing a reaction to certain foods, most reactions are actually caused by a food intolerance, not an actual allergy. While many of the symptoms are the same, they actually have substantially different underlying causes.
A ‘true’ food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the food. This, in turn, affects many of the body’s organs, causing a wide range of symptoms.
Some food allergies can be very severe, even causing life-threatening reactions. On the other hand, food intolerances tend to have milder symptoms, and are often limited to problems with digestion, rather than symptoms such as skin rashes and difficulty breathing that may come with a food allergy.
A food intolerance is not caused by an immune system reaction. There are several potential causes of an intolerance, including the absence of a specific enzyme – a common cause of lactose intolerance. Sensitivity to food additives, such as sulfites or dyes, and irritable bowel syndrome are other possible causes.
Celiac disease may also be classified as a food intolerance, though it shares some characteristics with true food allergies because it involves an immune response. The symptoms are primarily gastrointestinal and are triggered by eating the protein gluten, found in grains like wheat.
To determine whether you are dealing with a food intolerance or a food allergy, see your doctor. Those diagnosed with a food allergy are instructed to avoid the food entirely. For those with severe allergies, a single bite or even coming into contact with residue from the food can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Those with a food intolerance may be able to consume moderate quantities of the food without experiencing a reaction. There may be ways to prevent a reaction while still consuming the food. For example, those who are lactose intolerant may be able to take lactase enzyme pills (such as Lactaid) or drink lactose-free milk.