Do you regularly experiencing stomach or digestive issues after eating certain foods? Depending on the foods leading to your discomfort and symptoms, you may have a food allergy or intolerance. UnityPoint Health Dietitian, Allison Rossow, RDLD, breaks down the differences between food allergies and intolerances, plus steps to get tested.
“A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body,” Rossow says. “Food allergies cause a range of symptoms, and in some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.”
Rossow says these eight foods account for 90 percent of food allergies:
The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance results from a deficiency of an enzyme that helps breakdown the lactose (sugar) found in milk.
Most food allergies develop in children 6 years old or younger, but they can occur for the first time at any age, including adulthood. Rossow says it isn't clear why, but some adults develop an allergy to a food they used to eat with no problem. Similarly, sometimes a child outgrows a food allergy only to have it reappear in adulthood.
Common food allergy symptoms include:
Food intolerance symptoms are often limited to digestive problems, like stomach cramps, diarrhea, etc.
Dairy foods are a common trigger of food sensitivity, and Rossow says your doctor may suspect lactose intolerance based on your symptoms and response to reducing dairy foods in your diet. Doctors confirm a lactose intolerant diagnosis by one or more of the following tests:
Rossow says the first step an allergist will take to diagnose a food allergy is a thorough medical history. The allergist will ask questions to determine if a food allergy may be causing symptoms and to identify the culprit food(s) before performing a physical exam. Next, the allergist may conduct allergy tests to help identify a specific food allergy. While these tests alone do not always provide clear-cut answers, the allergist will combine test results with the information given in your medical history to provide a diagnosis. These tests may include:
Depending on your medical history and initial test results, you may have to have more than one test before receiving your diagnosis.
Unfortunately, Rossow says the only way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the food(s) causing signs and symptoms.
“For a minor allergic reaction, over-the-counter or prescribed antihistamines may help reduce symptoms. But, for a severe allergic reaction, an emergency injection of epinephrine may be needed. If you have a food intolerance, your doctor may recommend steps to aid digestion of certain foods or to treat the underlying condition causing your reaction,” Rossow says.
Managing food allergies and intolerances can mean making dietary changes. Those with food allergies must strictly avoid the offending food(s), which requires careful reading of food labels and ingredients lists. A person with a food intolerance may or may not be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble. But, before making any large-scale lifestyle changes, Rossow encourages seeing a provider.
“Do not diagnose a food allergy on your own. Self-diagnosis can lead to unnecessary dietary restrictions and inadequate nutrition, especially in children. If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you have a food allergy or intolerance,” Rossow says