Most of us know someone who is either allergic, intolerant or sensitive to certain foods. In fact, experts in the field of nutrition and digestive health estimate that 10-20% of us have a food sensitivity (Lipski, 2013) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 4% of us have a food allergy (CDC, 2015.) To meet these realities, restaurants are increasingly providing gluten- and dairy-free options and allergen-free products are becoming more available in grocery stores. These are welcome changes. Awareness is the first step towards making a change, so let’s learn a little more about the difference between allergies, sensitivities and intolerances, and how you find out if you might have one, or the other. Food intolerances sit in their own category, as we’ll see in a minute. But many doctors and health practitioners don’t differentiate between allergies and sensitivities because they both prompt an immune reaction. Let’s take a look at how nutrition experts define the three different reactions to food. Food allergies A food allergy elicits an immediate immune response to a food and can be very serious. Allergic reactions include swelling of the throat, hives and/or anaphylactic shock, all of which can be life-threatening situations. While the symptoms come on suddenly, they also recede relatively quickly, typically within 24 hours. An allergic reaction to food often necessitates the use of histamine blockers and/or epinephrine to stop the reaction. A common food allergy we hear about today is peanuts. If you have a food allergy, you will realize it immediately after eating the food. Food intolerances A food intolerance does not cause an immune response. It occurs when the body lacks a specific enzyme to digest a particular sugar found in a food. When the food cannot be digested, it causes a lot of pain and discomfort in the gut. Lactose intolerance is a common food intolerance, affecting nearly 75% of the world’s population. At present, there is no “cure” for a food intolerance. Some people can supplement with digestive enzymes and feel fine, while others are simply better off avoiding the offending food completely.
Food sensitivity is the most elusive of the food-related conditions to diagnose. Symptoms vary widely, and one sensitivity may be resolved just as a new one begins. Since it’s estimated by nutritional experts that 2 out of 10 of us may have a food sensitivity (Lipski, 2013), let’s take a closer look at this category.
A food sensitivity causes a delayed immune response of different antibodies (IgG) (remember, a true food allergy provokes an immediate reaction and involves the IgE antibodies). Symptoms are varied and can occur within a few hours, to up to a couple of days after ingesting the food. They can include digestive disruption (gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation), headaches, difficulty sleeping, mouth sores, skin rashes and acne and mood swings, as well as joint aches and pains. When the offending food is eaten continuously, the IgG antibodies continue to be released and the damaged tissues in the body don’t have time to heal. All of this activity can lead to chronic inflammation.
How do I develop a food sensitivity? A number of factors can lead to a food sensitivity, such as:
Consuming foods that have been chemically altered (GMOs), contain additives or are contaminated with pesticides, which can cause a disturbance in the body.
Regularly eating foods that are known to potentially cause inflammation, such as sugar, wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, citrus, corn, pork and beef.
Gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in the gut from too many bad bacteria overcrowding the good bacteria), which can be caused by taking medications, parasites, candida or infections. Dysbiosis affects the body’s ability to digest food, thereby causing a food sensitivity.
I think I might have some of these symptoms; how do I know which foods I might be sensitive to? Lab tests are available that identify food sensitivities for delayed immune responses however, the methods are not standardized among labs, so reliability has come into question. Additionally, these tests are rarely covered by insurance, so they can be expensive.
Elimination and challenge diet The best way to know which foods you might be sensitive to is to undergo an elimination and challenge diet. And, it’s free! This protocol, which doctors have had in their medical kits for decades, involves eliminating potential trigger foods from your diet for at least two weeks and then reintroducing a “challenging” item, one food at a time. Then, wait for 48 hours while monitoring your symptoms. After 48 hours the next food can be reintroduced, and so on. One must be diligent about eliminating the foods for two weeks and only reintroducing one food at a time. Only then will you have clear information about exactly which foods are causing your problems. If you do have a reaction to a particular food, leave it out of your diet for at least six months and then try it again. You may be able to reintroduce it again and enjoy it in moderate amounts.
Tips for healing from and preventing sensitivities
Eat a whole-foods diet free of processed foods, trans fat and refined sugar.
Rotate your diet so that you don’t consume the same foods every day.
Eat fermented foods to feed beneficial gut bacteria, or consider taking a daily probiotic.
Talk to a naturopath or functional medicine doctor about taking enzymes to ensure proper digestion.
Drink 2-3 cups a day of herbal tea to support your gut lining (roasted dandelion root, milk thistle or burdock are good choices).
If you have been experiencing symptoms that might be the result of food sensitivities, I encourage you to try an elimination and challenge diet and take charge of your health.
Lipski, E. (2013). Digestion connection: the simple, natural plan to combat diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, acid reflux—and more! New York: Rodale Inc., pp. 159-162.
Liska, D., & Bland, J. (2004). Clinical nutrition: a functional approach. Gig Harbor, WA: Institute for Functional Medicine, pp. 197-211.
Solan, Matthew, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch (2016, Dec 23). Don't tolerate food intolerance. Retrieved Jan 31, 2017, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/dont-tolerate-food-intolerance-2016122310829
Elimination Diet, Comprehensive Guide: www.functionalmedicine.org/files/library/elimnation-diet-comprehensive.pdf
Food Allergies in Schools. (2015, Jun 17). Retrieved Jan 31, 2017, www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/foodallergies/index.htm
General Information on Food Allergies and Sensitivities. University of Nebraska-Lincoln | Web Developer Network. (n.d.). Retrieved Feb 09, 2017, farrp.unl.edu/resources/gi-fas
Deborah Blake, NC
Deborah is a Nutrition Consultant in Menlo Park, California. She graduated in 2007 from Antioch University in Seattle with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice. Ever committed to working to improve the lives of others, she continued her education and recently graduated from the Nutrition Consulting program at Bauman College in Berkeley. Bauman is recognized for being at the forefront of the holistic approach to nutrition as it contributes to the prevention of illness and the promotion of optimal health.
Deborah is passionate about empowering clients with nutritional education and support so that they can create new habits to reach desired health goals. She offers one on one nutrition and wellness coaching, cooking demonstrations, as well as individualized meal planning.
In addition, Deborah is the co-author of Bites Beyond Limits, a food blog dedicated to allergy-free eating.
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