Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities

To get straight to the point, the easiest way to identify between a food allergy and a food sensitivity is how long it takes to react and the severity of the reaction.

A food allergy will often present with an immediate reaction. The body reacts to the protein in the food you are allergic to by identifying it as an invader. The body then defends against the invader by producing antibodies to fight it. The reaction is often immediate and symptoms can include digestive issues, skin reactions (hives, swelling, itching) and/or anaphylaxis (difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness, and potentially death). Generally, the reaction gets stronger with each exposure. The reaction can come from ingestion of the food, skin contact with the food or even airborne particles of the food.

Food sensitivities and intolerances are generally not life threatening, and can show symptoms up to 48 hours later. Food sensitivities can be disruptive in day to day living. Symptoms can include, but are not limited to, gas, bloating, sever reflux, postnasal drip, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, low energy, drowsiness, joint pain, and rashes. Food sensitivities are generally due to a food triggering a reaction in your digestive tract. It can be because your body is unable to break down the food you ingested, or the body reacts to a food you are sensitive to.

Stress can affect the severity of the reaction. For instance, some people might regularly tolerate dairy, but when in a higher stress situation, they my experience gastrointestinal distress when they consume diary. For instance, someone who has arthritis may notice that their symptoms worsen during periods of higher stress, and may need to eat a more restrictive diet to manage their symptoms during this time. It is also apparent that there is threshold for people with food sensitivities. For instance, some people may be fine with three servings of gluten per week, but experience symptoms with four. Food quality also plays an important role. I have seen clients be on a gluten and dairy free diet for years and still experience symptoms. It wasn’t until they switched to whole foods (not just gluten-free products) and rebalanced their diet that they became symptom-free. Interestingly some were able to tolerate high quality foods that contained gluten, and plain Greek yogurt (2% M.F. or higher), and older white cheeses with no symptoms.

Food sensitivities can be extremely frustrating to deal with as everyone’s symptoms and tolerances are different. Currently there is no good evidence based method of testing available to identify food sensitivities. The current gold standard of testing is an elimination diet. Working with a dietitian who specializes in food sensitivities can help clients properly test and eliminate foods from their diets. With most people the first step is to rebalance the diet and increase the micronutrition to help provide the body with the right building blocks for health.

There are several approaches one can take with elimination diets. The process of eliminating foods for 2-8 weeks (depending on the person) and then reintroducing them one at a time is designed to help collect the most amount of data on the client. The point of an elimination diet is to get the gut back to a baseline, which allows us to find a safe place to go back to should the symptoms reoccur. The process is made as easy as possible for our clients by focusing on what foods they can have versus what they can’t along with an individual meal plan based on their preferences, a list of safe foods and constant support.

The elimination diet is a way to empower clients to understand what foods work with their body and which ones don’t. Time of eating and balance is also taken into consideration to help the clients feel like their best version of themselves. With food sensitivities, you don’t have to completely avoid the foods. When done properly you know how you are going to feel, and it is your choice if you choose to have the food that makes you feel unwell. At least you know what it is and you’re not wondering around afraid to eat anything.

Both food allergies and food sensitives and intolerances can be challenging in their own way, but at Revive Wellness we are here to help.