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Diet & Nutrition

Food Allergies VS Food Sensitivities

6 Mins read

Knowing the difference between food allergies VS food sensitivities is important. You need to know how severe your food intolerance is, in order to take the best care of your health.

Depending on how negatively your body responds to foods containing lactose or gluten, for example, you could have a serious allergy or a minor sensitivity. It’s common for people to assume they have an allergy when they really have a food sensitivity. It’s best to find out one way or another, so you know exactly how much you need to modify your diet.

Knowing exactly how your body responds to certain foods is crucial when you’re trying a new diet or looking for ways to look and feel healthier.

Learning as much as you can about food sensitivities ensures you can save yourself from uncomfortable side effects after a poorly planned meal. When it comes to food allergies VS food sensitivities, knowing when you might have a food allergy is even more crucial. Serious allergic reactions can be life-threatening. 

Here’s what you need to know about food allergies VS food sensitivities, to best take care of your health:

The Difference Between Food Allergies VS Food Sensitivities

The major difference between a food sensitivity (or intolerance) and a food allergy, is the severity of the body’s response to the food in question. When you have a sensitivity or intolerance, a negative reaction triggers discomfort in the digestive system. Food sensitivities often prompt uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea, nausea, and cramping.

When you’re allergic to a food, an adverse response happens in your immune system. An allergy typically prompts symptoms such as swelling, itching, dizziness, hives, and even anaphylaxis. 

What is a Food Sensitivity?

A food sensitivity (often referred to as a food intolerance) is a lot more common than a food allergy. The British Allergy Foundation notes many people suffer from intolerances, particularly when it comes to lactose and gluten.

Although food sensitivities aren’t life-threatening, they are uncomfortable. When you consume something you’re sensitive to, your body either reacts negatively to the substance or struggles to break it down. Lactose intolerance, for instance, is what happens when your body can’t break down the lactose sugar found in dairy products. 

You may be sensitive to food because:

  • Your body doesn’t have the right enzymes to digest certain substances
  • You react negatively to food additives and preservatives like MSG
  • You have a genetic food intolerance
  • You suffer from pharmacological factors (such as with caffeine sensitivity)
  • You’re sensitive to the sugars naturally found in certain foods

Though most people are born with their food sensitivities, they can also develop over time. Other conditions can even prompt a higher risk of food intolerances. If you have irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease, this can influence the way you respond to certain foods. 

While the symptoms of food sensitivity vary – they’re never pleasant. Diarrhoea, gas, stomach pain, cramping, bloating, and nausea are all common. While people with food sensitivity or intolerance can still consume the food they’re intolerant to, it’s generally not a good idea. Constant exposure to a type of food your body is sensitive to can lead to problems with severe gastrointestinal discomfort, chronic pain, and even malnutrition in some cases. 

Figuring out which foods cause adverse reactions in your gut can help you to live a healthier, happier life (with fewer painful trips to the bathroom). 

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What is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy is a far more serious response to an edible substance than a food sensitivity or food intolerance.

Rather than triggering negative responses in your stomach, a food allergy triggers your immune system – the main source of protection your body has against dangerous invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. You have a food allergy when your immune system identifies a specific protein in something you eat or drink as a dangerous invader.

If your body accidentally defines food as an invader, it produces antibodies against it, resulting in symptoms like swelling, skin itching, hives, and similar issues. Though food sensitivities are uncomfortable, food allergies are much more dangerous because they can be fatal.

In severe circumstances, an allergic reaction to food can cause anaphylaxis, which can result in difficulty breathing, dizziness, and death

Though food allergies aren’t as common as food sensitivities, the prevalence of these conditions is increasing. About 60% of food allergies appear during the first year of a child’s life, and 8 foods are responsible for 90% of all allergies:

  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy beans
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Shellfish

The Similar Symptoms of Allergies and Intolerances 

Allergies are the overreaction of the body’s immune system to a specific protein. The symptoms of a food allergy can vary depending on how severe the issue is. However, some symptoms are quite similar to that of intolerance, which is where the confusion often begins. 

IgE reactions are the most common food allergy reactions in the body. An IgE reaction is what causes anaphylaxis, itching, and swelling. Non-IgE reactions are also possible, and they’re often confused for food intolerance symptoms, because of the similarities. Non-IgE reactions include diarrhoea, vomiting, and bloating. 

Notably, symptoms of an allergic reaction can affect multiple parts of the body, while symptoms of intolerance will only impact the gastrointestinal system. An allergy can affect:

  • The central nervous system: Causing fatigue, irritability and headaches
  • Eyes: Prompting itching and watering
  • Lungs: Causing wheezing, coughing, and trouble breathing
  • Skin: Prompting rashes, hives, and dermatitis
  • The digestive system: Causing stomach pains, and vomiting
  • Nose: Prompting itching, stuffiness, and sneezing
  • Throat: Prompting swelling and trouble breathing
  • Mouth: Causing swelling and itching

The Genetic Side of Food Allergies and Intolerances 

In the discussion of food allergies vs food sensitivities, the most important thing to remember is that allergies can be fatal, while intolerances are not. However, the two reactions can be very similar in a lot of different ways. As mentioned above, the symptoms of non-IgE allergic reactions and food sensitivities are usually very similar and focused on the digestive tract.

Additionally, both allergies and food intolerances can connect back to your genes. People who have lactose intolerance are more likely to pass this onto their children. There are also certain genes that may reduce your ability to process certain enzymes, leading to various sensitivities for things like caffeine, alcohol, and glucose. 

Allergies are also more likely among family members. Children with at least one family member with an allergic condition (including eczema and asthma) are 20- to 40% more likely to develop an allergy. If you have two family members with an allergic condition, your risk increases by 50 to 80%. 

Finding Out if You Have Food Allergies VS Food Sensitivities

After experiencing uncomfortable symptoms after eating, taking the appropriate steps to find out if you have an allergy or food sensitivity is important.

One of the best ways to understand whether you’re more likely to have a food allergy or food sensitivity is to get a DNA test. A test from CircleDNA can tell you about the foods you might be sensitive to, and which foods you may need to abstain from.

Combine that DNA test with a blood test or skin prick test ordered from your doctor or naturopath, and you’ll find out for sure which foods you need to stay away from. 

If you’re concerned you may have an allergy or intolerance, your doctor will often ask you to keep a food log of your daily intake. This is referred to as a food diary, where you write down what you eat, and then you write down any associated symptoms as well. This can help you check for certain patterns in your symptoms. If there’s a risk of an allergen, a skin prick test using food extracts can be performed in a safe environment. 

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How Dangerous are Food Allergies and Sensitivities?

Food sensitivities aren’t as dangerous as allergies – but they are problematic.

People eat foods they’re sensitive to all the time and deal with the uncomfortable symptoms all the time. However, the more you eat a food you’re intolerant to, the more you’re putting your body under unnecessary stress. Most doctors will recommend simply avoiding food you have a sensitivity to as much as possible. In rare conditions, there are medications that can help you to digest certain foods more effectively. This includes enzymes for people with lactose intolerance. 

If you have an allergy, there’s no cure – although you can get prescription medications to help relieve symptoms of certain allergies, like hay fever. For food allergies, you’ll need to avoid eating the food you’re sensitive to completely. A doctor may also prescribe an epi-pen or adrenaline injection for you to use if you’re accidentally exposed to your allergen.

Understanding Food Sensitivities and Allergic Reactions

Understanding the difference between food allergies and sensitivities can be an essential step towards protecting yourself from dangerous side effects and risks. As you now know, an allergy is an immune system response when something unwanted is detected.

Food intolerance is a chemical reaction that happens in the digestive system after you eat or drink something your body is sensitive to. Food intolerances might not be an immune system response, but they have been associated with issues such as IBS, chronic fatigue, and even asthma. 

If you want to learn more about your potential food allergies and sensitivities, get a DNA test from Circle DNA today. 

Rebekah Carter
32 posts

About author
Rebekah is a committed copywriter and freelance content producer with a history in the technology, marketing, and health sectors. She’s worked with leading brands around the world, and is constantly searching for new ways to expand her knowledge, and skills.
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