Food sensitivities and food allergies are increasingly common. Millions of Americans experience allergic reactions to foods every year and while most of the time these reactions are mild, some can be life threatening and require immediate medical help. With that said, what is the difference between food sensitivities vs food allergies and where do they come from? How do we know whether symptoms are from an allergy or a sensitivity? What are the best ways to prevent, treat, and even live with them? Keep reading to find all of the essential answers in this blog post.

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Birds eye few of a handful of peanuts to represent food allergies.

Food Sensitivities vs. Food Allergies 

Although the difference between food sensitivities vs food allergies is complicated, a simple distinction is that folks who are allergic to foods will react immediately after eating the food allergen. On the other hand, folks with food sensitivities will experience a delayed reaction.

What is a Food Allergy?

Food allergies are an abnormal response to food that’s triggered by your immune system, the system in our body that fights infections. It happens because your immune system mistakes a non-harmful food for a serious invader and overreacts to it. The immune system creates a specific type of compound in your body called IgE antibody that is responsible for most of the symptoms of true allergies.

These IgE mediated allergic reactions can be non serious or serious and in some cases, it can be life threatening. Most of the time, allergies are first noticed during childhood but they can also at any age. Mild allergic reactions to food may result in more serious symptoms the next time you eat that food.

So after your first reaction, even if it is mild, It is important to talk to your healthcare provider to see if you need allergy testing or may need to carry emergency medications.

What Are the Common Symptoms of Food Allergies?

Generally, reactions are not subtle and happen immediately. Common reactions include the development of hives, rashes, swollen lips, and difficulty breathing.

Close up of eggs in an egg carton to represent food sensitivities and food allergies.

What Causes Food Allergies?

It is unclear exactly where food allergies come from. However, some research shows that it could be partly genetic. Human gut microbiota, the system of microorganisms in a person’s GI tract may also influence the development of food allergies.

Is There a Cure for Food Allergies?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for food allergies. However, allergic reactions can certainly be prevented by staying away from the food allergen for the rest of your life.

What are Food Sensitivities? 

When it comes to food sensitivities, after consuming a trigger food, the body may react anywhere between 24 to 72 hours. This delayed response is one of the reasons why food sensitivities are difficult to identify as it makes it difficult to pinpoint which specific food caused a negative reaction. Unfortunately, this is why folks are often not aware of food sensitivities for many years. In addition, unlike food allergies, reacting to food sensitivities is not as severe or life-threatening. 

What are the Common Symptoms of Food Sensitivities? 

You may experience a range of reactions with food sensitivities and every person is different. Some common symptoms include headaches, migraines, bloating, excessive gas, mood swings, joint pain or joint stiffness, acne and more. 

What Causes Food Sensitivities?

An imbalanced gut can be one of the reasons for the food sensitivity. The best way to identify food allergies and food sensitivities is to take a test to know learn your exact trigger foods and know what to stay away from. Food sensitivity and food allergies can be identified by a blood test or a PRIC test. Because food sensitivities are difficult to identify, you may not show an allergy to certain foods on a food allergy test, but you may be sensitive to those particular foods on a food sensitivity test. My advice to you would be even if you are experiencing severe symptoms, but if you think you’re not tolerating some foods in your diet, it’s a great idea to take a test to find out exactly which those foods are, as undiagnosed food sensitivities can result in the inflammation and toxic burden in your body.

Many clients throughout Arizona, including Scottsdale & Phoenix, come to me for food sensitivity testing. Many food sensitivities are often mistaken for allergies. Food intolerances can cause many symptoms after eating offending foods but what differs is that these symptoms are not the result of the IgE antibodies. That’s what makes them a sensitivity and not an allergy. Food sensitivity is a delayed reaction your body gives to a specific food unlike food allergy where the reaction is right away. Many times people are unaware of food sensitivities. The food allergy test may show that you are NOT allergic to certain food but the food sensitivity test may show that you are actually sensitive to that food. For example – you may not be allergic to strawberries based on a food allergy test but you can be sensitive to strawberries when you do a food sensitivity test.

Many studies have shown that the root cause for the food sensitivity is poor or imbalanced gut health. If you think you are dealing with gut issues, it is likely that you are also dealing with food sensitivities. Download my free, quick guide, on “5 ways to support your gut health”

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Five Common Food Sensitivities, Food Allergies and Food Intolerances 

There are several different types of food sensitivities and allergies. Here is a short list of the most common reactions.

1) Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock

This is usually a very fast, life-threatening reaction that can occur when exposed to specific foods, medications, or stinging insects (e.g., bees). Symptoms can include sneezing, coughing, itching, hives, swelling, blood pressure drop, abdominal pain, dizziness, tightness in the throat, and shortness of breath. The main treatment for an anaphylactic reaction is an epinephrine auto-injector and calling 9-1-1. Avoiding what caused your reaction is necessary to prevent future life-threatening reactions which may be even worse than the first one.

2) Oral allergy syndrome or Pollen-food allergy syndrome 

When symptoms such as rash, itching, sneezing, and swelling occur around the mouth, lips, and tongue, this is called oral allergy syndrome. Foods commonly associated with this syndrome include raw apples, bananas, cherries, kiwis, peaches, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, melons, and hazelnuts. This type of allergic reaction is not life-threatening and is common among those who are also allergic to grass and ragweed pollen (hence the name pollen-food allergy syndrome). Cooking the fruit or vegetable often reduces the symptoms because the heat breaks down the proteins responsible for this type of non-life-threatening reaction.

3) Eosinophilic Esophagitis 

Heartburn-like symptoms, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or difficulty swallowing after eating certain foods may be eosinophilic esophagitis associated with food allergies. If this happens, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider to see if you should get tested for allergies or need medications. Avoiding foods that cause this reaction is key.

A solo glass of milk against a white background to represent common food allergies and sensitivities.

4) Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is a sugar found in milk that can cause gas to build up in the gastrointestinal [digestive/GI] tract. This is not an allergy, but rather an inability to effectively digest it. Lactose is a two-part sugar molecule that needs the enzyme lactase to break it down. When someone does not have enough active lactase in their digestive [gastrointestinal/GI] tract, lactose remains intact and causes abdominal pain, nausea, excess gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

5) Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance

Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. While intolerance to gluten involves the immune system, it differs from allergies by the specific antibodies involved (allergies involve IgE antibodies, while gluten intolerance does not).

 


 

Strategies to Prevent Allergen Exposure

The best way to deal with food allergies and sensitivities is to avoid those foods that cause reactions for you. Here are some strategies to deal with them.

Read food labels carefully

According to FDA, the most common food allergens must be declared on package labels and any packaged foods. The common food allergens that must be identified include peanuts, tree nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts, fish and shellfish. eggs, milk, wheat, and soy. However, as an extra precaution, make sure you take a look at the ingredient list in order to identify potentially hidden sources of food allergens. For example, gluten can often be listed as semolina, or durum flour. Also, make sure to look for statements such as “may contain”,”allergen free” or “produced in the facility that also uses [food allergen]”.

An unwrapped food label from a Campbell's soup can.

Maintain Basic Hygiene

This means regularly washing your hands and sanitizing common household surfaces like kitchen countertops, dishes, and other utensils. This will help to prevent accidental cross contamination.

Ask for Allergy Friendly Menus

If you are ordering or eating out, be sure to check if the restaurant is allergy friendly and what kind of regulations they follow. Make sure you communicate your allergy and confirm whether the meal is free from the specific food you are allergic to before you place your order.

Check Medication & Product Labels 

Some food allergens may also be added to certain medications and cosmetics, so be sure to check those labels as well. This is especially true if you are allergic to something like gluten and you have a diagnosis of Celiac disease. 

Don’t Forget Your Medication!

If you have a severe food allergy and you are at risk of experiencing a serious anaphylactic reaction, It is important to carry an epinephrine auto injector and know how to use it properly in case of accidental exposure.

Final Thoughts

While there are differences in risk between food sensitivities vs food allergies what we do know is that they are increasingly common. There are several different kinds and most are not serious or life-threatening, however, they all cause unwelcome symptoms. As a general rule, avoiding the offending foods is highly recommended. 

If you believe you have a serious food allergy, it’s critical that you see your healthcare provider to determine if you need to carry emergency medication for future exposures. If you think you may be sensitive to certain foods I offer food sensitivity testing to my clients in Arizona and nationwide.

For a customized plan designed to help you enjoy the meals you love minus the few foods that you may be allergic or sensitive to, consult a Registered Dietitian / Nutritionist, like myself, who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals.

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