The Difference Between Food Allergies and Intolerance

Food allergies are very common. However, it is only within recent years that more and more people are becoming aware of allergies to certain foods. Peanut butter has been banned from many schools because so many children are now testing as positive for allergies. But how many of us understand exactly what a food allergy is? Is an allergy to a certain food the same thing as having food intolerance?

Let’s look at allergies first. Allergies can be triggered by many things, not just food items. Pet hair and pollen are two very common allergy triggers. Allergy symptoms are caused by the body’s immune system over reacting to a perceived threat. For example, when you have a cold, the immune system fights the cold virus by producing histamines.  Histamines provoke certain reactions in the body, like mucous production for example, to wash the virus out of your mucous membranes. For some people however, the body doesn’t recognize pollen as a harmless intruder and begins attacking it in the same way, causing sniffles, congestion and watery eyes.

The same thing happens with some people and certain foods. When someone with a food allergy consumes the allergen, the immune system goes on high alert and starts defending itself against what it believes is a dangerous substance. The resulting overdose of histamines can cause hives, itching, and even life-threatening swelling of the mucous membranes which in extreme cases can close off the airway and become life threatening.

Food intolerance, on the other hand, simply means that a person’s body has difficulty digesting or processing a certain food. Someone with wheat intolerance may have gas, bloating and stomach pains, cramps or diarrhea, or even vomiting. Intolerance to food can also lead to problems such as headache or a general run-down feeling. Food intolerance is rarely life threatening, but it can cause a lot of problems in daily life.

One serious issue with food intolerance is the effect it can have on growing children. A child with an undiagnosed wheat or gluten intolerance who is still eating products with these ingredients will often have chronic diarrhea, cramping and gas. Diarrhea causes an increased mobility of the bowel, which simply means food passes through the intestines faster than normal. Because of this, the child’s body isn’t able to absorb all the nutrients it needs from the food. This is why children with food intolerances may suffer from stunted or delayed growth.

It’s also important to note that food allergies can be triggered by even a tiny amount of the offending food. The allergic reaction will also become more severe each time the trigger food is encountered. With food intolerance, eating a small amount of the food may not be enough to cause any problems. The quantity of food consumed (and also the frequency with which it is consumed) is usually in direct proportion to the symptoms noted.

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