Allergies vs. Intolerances: they’re similar, but different

So you suspect a food is to blame for making you feel not-so-great. But are you allergic to it or simply intolerant? Allergies and intolerances are often mixed up. While both can have similar symptoms, there are some pretty fundamental differences in the way they affect your body.

Food allergies

If you have a food allergy, it means your immune system has an abnormal reaction to something present in that particular food. When the allergen is ingested, even just a tiny amount, your immune system decides it’s a ‘threat’ and reacts quickly to try to eliminate the foreign substance. It’s here that rapid symptoms like an upset stomach, swelling and inflammation will start to happen.

Food intolerances

Some food intolerances are caused by an enzyme deficiency (i.e lactose intolerance), which is when the body doesn’t produce enough of a particular enzyme to digest the proteins or sugars in the type of food you’re eating.  Other food intolerances can be caused by a more ‘drug-like’ reaction to other components in a food (i.e  protein or chemical). The reactions aren’t usually as severe as with a food allergy – they come on more slowly and are not usually life-threatening.

So, which do you have?

Rather than trying to self-diagnose, it’s a good idea to see your GP if you think a food is making you suffer. They’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong based on your symptoms and medical history or refer you to someone who can.

Treatments for allergies and intolerances

  •  No matter which you’re suffering from, make it a habit to read food labels carefully. Become an expert in your problem food and where it’s used as an ingredient.
  •  With food allergies, you need to follow the advice of your specialist with regards to the level of allergen avoidance.
  •  With intolerances, the extent to which you need to stop eating the ‘problem food’ varies. If lactose is the issue, you can probably get away with reducing the amount of dairy food you eat. If something else is to blame, you’ll likely have to stop eating the food for a while – or longer.