Food allergy or food intolerance?

Many individuals believe they have food allergies, but this term is often used when food intolerance is a more accurate reflection of what’s happening in the body.

A food allergy is actually an immune-system response. A food intolerance is a broad term that describes any adverse reaction to food. In a true food allergy, the body mistakenly treats an ingredient in the food (usually a protein) as if it were a harmful pathogen. The body responds by creating a defense system (antibodies) to fight it. The most common foods that elicit allergic reactions are dairy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans and almonds), shellfish and soy, but allergic reactions can be caused by any food.

Allergic reactions often happen immediately after exposure, and can be so severe that the person need not ingest the food. In rare cases eating with a utensil that has previously touched the food or inhaling vapors from cooking may be enough to elicit a life threatening response called anaphylaxis. Anaphylactic shock can obstruct breathing and shut down oxygen-carrying blood flow to vital organs of the body, including the brain.

Allergic reactions may also produce skin irritations or swelling on parts of the body. A food allergy is best managed by completely avoiding the food (such as peanuts) or food category (such as tree nuts or shellfish) because allergic reactions may escalate with repeated exposure to the allergen.

Non-allergic food intolerance is often limited to an uncomfortable digestive-system response. The most common example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, in which one’s body is unable to break down the sugar (lactose) in dairy products. Other food intolerances can be caused by irritation to the digestive system by other ingredients in the food consumed. Intolerances usually happen within a few hours of eating the food.

There are no medications that can cure food allergy or intolerance. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid that particular food or food group. For food intolerances there are some over-the-counter digestive aids like Lactaid and Beano that help break down different components of foods, but these must be taken at the time the food is ingested and have limited capacity to prevent distress. If you feel that there are foods that your body does not tolerate, it may be a good idea to speak with your physician to determine if there is an allergy or intolerance; look at all of your options for being safe and healthy in your food choices with the least amount of restriction as possible.

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