I often get asked by clients for allergy testing to help them determine what foods may be causing them distress. This week, let’s talk a little more about allergies and intolerances and how to know if you have one.
What is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy is a reaction that happens in your body that involves the immune system. It can be to various substances including food. Your immune system is an amazing force that acts as your body’s defence to protect you from various bad bacteria and toxins. When you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly identifies the specific food as harmful and triggers an attack against that substance that can cause all types of reactions.
The first time you are exposed to a food allergen, your immune system works hard to create specific antibodies to that allergen – so the first time you have that food, you may not experience a reaction. These newly formed antibodies will act as “watchdogs”, waiting and watching for viruses, bacteria and other unwelcome visitors – in this situation that food that you are allergic to. When the food is consumed a second time, the antibodies attach and bind to the food particles and release a chemical called histamine. Histamine is responsible for the allergic reactions such as itchy sensations, swelling, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and in extreme cases, breathing difficulties. If you experience these types of symptoms, than you probably have an allergy, not an intolerance.
Common Allergens: The Big 8
The most common food allergies are called the Big 8, which include:
If you think you might have a food allergy, ask your family doctor about food allergy testing. The food allergy testing available through a physician is the most accurate available. Beware of allergy testing from other practitioners, most have less than 50% accuracy – so you’re spending a lot of money to take a guess at if you have food allergies.
What is a Food Intolerance?
Unlike food allergies, the immune system is not involved in the symptoms caused by a food intolerance. Food intolerances usually cause less serious reactions than food allergies, but can still cause terrible discomfort and significantly affect your life. They are usually caused by problem absorbing or digesting the particular food or foods.
Symptoms of Food Intolerance
The most common symptoms of food intolerance are:
- Stomach cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive gas
- Bloating and/or distension
One of the most common food intolerances is lactose intolerance. Milk contains a sugar called lactose and the body has an enzyme (lactase) that breaks this sugar down. If you are lactose intolerant, that means you don’t have enough of this enzyme and can’t digest and absorb milk properly. This can causes gas, bloating and diarrhea. To learn more about a dairy free diet check out our blog post Hold the Lactose. To learn more about a less common food intolerance that may be linked to IBS, read this guest post all about Histamine Intolerance.
Unlike food allergies, a food intolerance is dose related. What is “dose related” you may ask? Well, if someone who has a food intolerance only eats a small amount of the food than they may not see a reaction, so for example 2 oz of cheese can have between 0.2 and 0.5 grams of lactose. You may not experience a reaction or as strongly of a reaction as have a cup of milk which has 14 grams of lactose! Interesting I know right? This can be the affect for any food you have an intolerance to.
Diagnosing a Food Intolerance
To figure out if you are intolerant to one or more foods, the best thing to do is to Keep a Food & Symptom journal. Track for at least 7 days and then look to see if you find any patterns.
Remember, food can affect you for up to 48 hours. So you may find this challenging to do without the help of an expert. It is highly recommended that you work with a Registered Dietitian if you are going to eliminate foods from your diet to help you continue to eat healthy and get all the nutrients you need.
Please be careful of other practitioners advertising food intolerance testing. Investing money in these types of testing is really a gamble, and you’ll never truly know if they are correct or not. Working with an expert on food tracking and elimination is the best way to help you identify what foods are causing you distress and learning how to keep them out of your diet.
Much love and good eating,
Stephanie and the Team