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Today we clarify the often times confusing differences between food allergies, food sensitivities, and food intolerances. 

If you have any of the above, you know the impact disagreeable foods can have on your health and well-being.  What you may not know is that some of those daily annoyances you consider normal like headaches, acne, achy joints, reflux, and fatigue may be caused by a sensitivity to food…maybe even foods you consider “healthy.”  In past blogs,  we focused on food sensitivities and how they impact performance.  I hold this subject near and dear because I have made food sensitivity a focus of my professional practice as a LEAP Therapist. I have also made significant changes to my own diet after discovering my own sensitivities.  So, let’s get started by breaking down the basics.

Food Intolerances

You have a food intolerance if your body has difficulty digesting certain foods.  The most common food intolerance is with dairy products.  If you have a lactose intolerance, your body is unable to break down lactose, the sugar in dairy products.  The symptoms that follow including gas, cramping, and diarrhea result from that undigested sugar fermenting in your gut.  Because a lactose intolerant is the result of sugar malabsorption, people with a lactose intolerance can sometimes tolerate cheese or yogurt which contains less lactose then milk itself.

Food Allergies

Often used as an umbrella term to describe any negative reaction to food, actual food allergies only affect 1-2% of the population.  Food allergies are easy to identify because a person’s reaction is typically immediate and symptoms occur every time the food is eaten regardless of amount.  Symptoms stem from the body’s immune response to the disagreeable food and include rash, difficulty breathing, and GI discomfort.  With food allergies, antibodies called IgE trigger cells known as mast cells to release damaging histamines and cytokines into our tissues.  The mast cells location in the tissue explains why allergies typically impact our airways, skin, and GI tract.  If the reaction is severe enough, which is not typically the case, a person can have an anaphylactic reaction that requires immediate attention.  The eight foods that must be noted on food packaging for allergy identification include

  • milk
  • eggs
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • tree nuts
  • peanuts
  • wheat
  • soybeans

We discussed food labels more in depth here.

Food Sensitivities

Often confused with food allergies, food sensitivities also cause an immune system response. 

Food sensitivities impact up to 30% of the American population. 

Unlike food allergies, food sensitivities are difficult to identify.  Reactions depend on dose, meaning the amount of a particular food one eats matters.  And, unlike food allergies, the reaction can be delayed up to 3 days.  So the headache you have on Monday could be because you ate broccoli on Friday.  The antibodies involved in food sensitivities are IgG and IgM, but reactions can also be triggered by the complements C3 and C4.  The call to action by the immune system to release histamines and cytokines comes from white blood cells in the blood stream like neutrophils. 

So, where damage from food allergies is limited to the tissues, food sensitivities impact all of our organs.  Food sensitivities can result from poor digestion, unbalanced gut flora, chronic stress, an overloaded immune system, loss of oral intolerance (aka eating too much of the same food all the time), and also genetics.  There is not a top 8 list because everybody reacts slightly different to food. For example, the food sensitivities that I was tested for include garlic, blueberries, nightshades (potato, bell pepper, tomato), and wheat. So I avoid these foods whenever possible and I can definitely tell the difference should I slip up. 


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