According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylactic Network, more than 15 million Americans suffer from one or more foods allergies. In addition, physicians believe that many more people suffer from food sensitivities, which are undiagnosed and untreated. Knowing the difference between the two conditions caused by commonly consumed food can make difference in seeking help, or just popping a few Tumms. Untreated allergies can lead to anaphylactic shock and be fatal.
What is food allergy?
Food allergy is our body’s immune system’s response to common foods, which are mistakenly seen as a threat and attacked. Protein in some foods triggers creation of chemical components, such as histamine, resulting in the reaction we are familiar with when having an allergy attack: hives, swelling, itching and skin rash. More severe reaction can cause trouble breathing, wheezing or fainting. If not treated immediately, it can be fatal.
According to the CDC, the number of children suffering from food allergies is on the increase. It went up full 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. There are today about three million children in the US with food allergy.
Almost 90 percents of all food allergies are caused by eight foods: peanuts, eggs, cow’s milk, fish, wheat, shellfish, soybeans and nuts. Children commonly outgrow allergy to eggs and milk once their stomach matures. Adults are commonly allergic to nuts, fish and shellfish.
Besides these eight most common allergens, FDA reports that there are more than 160 additional foods that can trigger an allergic reactions. People who are allergic to one type of food are more likely to become allergic to something else as well.
Treating food allergies
The only real treatment for mild allergy is to avoid foods that cause allergic reaction. In some cases, food that causes reaction when raw can be eaten without problems when cooked. This is especially common with fruit and vegetable allergies. It is very important to learn to read food labels, since some unrelated food can contain unexpected ingredients. For example, peanuts can be in anything, from cookies to cereals, mixed with other nuts or as part of an energy bar. Also, people allergic to one type of food are very likely to be allergic to similar foods as well. People allergic to fish are often allergic to other types of seafood, so they should check their reaction with a small quantity to be sure.
Avoiding certain foods we are allergic to can deprives us of some important nutrients. It is crucial to discuss the change in diet with your doctor.
Cases of very violent allergic reaction, which causes condition called anaphylactic shock, have to be treated immediately with epinephrine or adrenaline injection. These devices are known EpiPen ® or Twinject ®. People who are aware of their food allergy should carry EpiPen with them at all times. Teachers should be advised that a school child has a particular allergy, in order to help child avoid dangerous food, but also in order to learn how to administer EpiPen if needed.
Food sensitivity or intolerance
While we might not know it under this name, many people are suffering from food intolerance and are never diagnosed. It is a very different type of disorder and is not linked to our immune system. The most common symptoms are stomach cramps and a sense of bloating. One reason why it is so difficult to diagnose this disorder is its similarity to other problems such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and stomach obstruction.
There are several reasons why someone might be intolerant to certain food. It can be a lack of some enzymes or chemicals necessary for its digestion, or it can be due to some abnormality that causes body’s inability to absorb nutrients.
Many people are intolerant to more than one food, making it very difficult to figure out what exactly is causing problems.
People with sensitivity to certain foods can improve their condition by eating only a small quantity of it. But, in many cases, just like with allergy, it is necessary to completely eliminate offending foods from the diet. Talk to your doctor about adapting your diet to avoid missing important nutrients.
Both food allergies and food intolerance should be treated seriously, by a medical practitioner, in order to determine what food is causing problems and how to avoid it from the diet.
While medical practitioners do not take food intolerance seriously, it is almost debilitating for people who suffer from it. First, it is difficult to find what exactly is making us sick. We start avoiding many different foods, in order to prevent painful bloating and cramps. Some people end up malnourished, because they feel that almost anything they eat makes them sick.
How to tell the difference
UK National Health Services published a list of symptoms to look for in order to distinguish food allergy from food intolerance:
- Symptoms of food allergy will appear almost immediately after the contact with the offending food, starting with the tingling in the mouth and lips;
- Even a trace of the food can cause an allergic reaction;
- There is a series of tests which can be used to diagnose allergy to a particular food with accuracy;
- A test should find the presence of Immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies against the particular food, and a food intolerance does not.
- If not treated immediately, severe allergic reaction can be life-threatening
- Symptoms of food intolerance show up slowly, a couple of hours after eating, and are long-lasting;
- Most symptoms affect the digestive system;
- Most people can eat a small quantity of offending food and only have reaction to larger amount. Some people need a very little to react;
- To add insult to injury, many people crave foods that make them feel sick;
- There are no useful tests for food intolerance, so it is very difficult to diagnose;
- There are no Immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies in the blood;
- It’s never life-threatening
Why increase in food allergies and sensitivities?
Scientists do not agree on what makes us more allergic or sensitive food today than 10 or 20 years ago. There are several theories. One study, published in 2010 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the gut flora of Westerners is much less rich and diverse than in rural people whose diet is predominantly vegetarian. They believe that this lack of diversity has something to do with the increase of food allergies. Also, Westerners’ diet is too rich in sugar, animal fat and calories.
Another theory, published in 2008 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, believes that children who are exposed to common allergens such as peanuts are less likely to develop allergies later in life. The researchers did not suggest when the good time to start is. In fact, the study was too small to offer any significant proof.
The increase in number of food allergies and sensitivities is just another proof that our modern diet is dysfunctional and unhealthy. It is necessary to treat both food and food sensitivities seriously and to make sure that you find out exactly what is causing problem. Elimination diet might take some time, but it will eventually tell you what you should avoid. Working with a qualified dietitian can make this process easier and faster.