Food intolerances vs food allergies: what’s really bothering your belly?

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You’ve just finished a great meal, and suddenly, your stomach isn’t feeling so great. Or maybe you break out in a rash. Is it a food allergy or food intolerance?

These terms often get mixed up, but they’re not the same. Let’s take a look at what they mean and how to tell the difference between the two.

What’s the Difference?

First off, let’s break down the terms. A food allergy is when your immune system thinks a certain food is an invader.

In response, your body releases chemicals like histamine, which can cause a variety of symptoms that can range from itching and hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Common foods that trigger allergies include peanuts, shellfish, eggs, and milk.

Food intolerance, on the other hand, doesn’t involve the immune system. If you have a food intolerance, it means your digestive system has trouble breaking down a particular food.

For example, lactose intolerance happens when you can’t properly digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Symptoms are usually less severe than allergies and can include stomach cramps, bloating, and diarrhea.

What Does Science Say?

A study published in the journal “Allergy” estimates that food allergies affect around 10% of people, while intolerances affect even more.

The symptoms can sometimes overlap, which makes it difficult to differentiate between the two. But the key difference, as another study in the “World Allergy Organization Journal” points out, is that an allergic reaction can be life-threatening, whereas an intolerance is generally not.

Allergy testing usually involves skin prick tests or blood tests to look for specific antibodies. For intolerances, there’s no definitive test.

Often, healthcare providers recommend an elimination diet, where you remove suspect foods and then gradually reintroduce them to see if symptoms reappear.

How to Deal With It?

If you suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance, the first step is to see a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment. If it’s an allergy, you might need to carry an EpiPen, and you’ll need to avoid the trigger food entirely.

For food intolerances, management often involves avoiding large amounts of the problem food or taking supplements to help break it down. For example, people with lactose intolerance can take lactase pills to help digest dairy products.

It’s important to note that while you can sometimes manage food intolerance symptoms by just eating less of the offending food, you should never take that risk with food allergies, where even a small amount could trigger a severe reaction.

In a nutshell, both food intolerances and food allergies can make you uncomfortable but in different ways and for different reasons.

Knowing the difference can help you manage your symptoms better and may even save your life in the case of severe allergies.

So, if you have issues after eating certain foods, don’t self-diagnose—see a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

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