Allergies

Food Allergies? Or Food Intolerance?

Do you have a food allergy? Has a doctor diagnosed you? Did you figure out you were allergic on your own? Did you have an allergic reaction as a child?

Food Allergies or Intolerance?

Even if you answered yes to one or all of these questions, you may still be able to enjoy the foods you’ve been avoiding all these years! What many people don’t know is that only 4-5% of adults actually have food allergies. But around 30% of the population believe they are allergic to certain foods.

For many years, the standard allergy test involved scratching the skin with an allergen (peanut oil, for example) to see if there was a visible reaction. Other tests looked at the level of specific antibodies in the blood against the allergen. But these tests don’t capture the whole picture. Even if the body produces a small reaction or has antibodies, it doesn’t indicate that the person is allergic to that food and needs to avoid it. The study found that someone diagnosed after one of these two tests only had a 50% chance of actually being allergic to the food.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warns doctors against relying only on these two tests to diagnose food allergies. They recommend a different test which is more accurate but also riskier. Called the Oral Food Challenge, the patient is given samples of various foods, some containing potential allergens, to see what reaction they have. When performed by an experienced doctor, this test can provide the most accurate diagnosis, eliminate false positives, and also distinguish between food allergies and food intolerance.

The biggest problem with over-diagnosing food allergies is that many people must adjust their lifestyle to avoid these foods. This effectively lowers their quality of life and potentially reduces the health benefits associated with those foods, such as fiber and nutrients. Being afraid and overly cautious around food may prevent serious allergic reactions, but for many people, it’s unnecessary.

Another problem is that many people who think they have food allergies actually only suffer from a food intolerance. Perhaps one of the best-known versions of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, where the body can no longer digest the sugars in milk. This causes extreme discomfort, bloating, gas, and other problems. However, these problems are not reactions caused by the immune system, and they are not life-threatening.

In addition, some people may believe they have a food allergy due to a reaction they had a child. The problem with this type of self-diagnosis is that many people outgrow childhood allergies. Also, another reaction may have been mistaken for a food allergy in the past (such as an insect bite, a reaction to medication, or an unrelated rash).

So if you’ve always assumed you have food allergies, you may have been needlessly avoiding your favorite foods. Check with your doctor and allergist to make sure that you actually have an allergy, that you haven’t outgrown it, and that it’s not just an intolerance.

Learn more about food allergies, common types of food intolerance, and how to prevent and treat food allergies. In addition, read more on our blog about what causes children’s food allergies and how oral allergy syndrome can make seasonal allergies worse.