Food allergies and intolerances: how to distinguish between them

Several reasons can prevent someone from eating certain foods, including a food allergy or intolerance.

At first glance, a food allergy and an intolerance may seem alike. Yet, there is a world of difference between them, even though both are caused by hypersensitivity to food. It is important to distinguish them in order to better prevent and manage their effects.

A food allergy: less frequent, but more serious!

A food allergy results from a reaction by the immune system to a substance that is present in food. This substance is called an allergen. The body perceives it as a threat and triggers a strong "defence reaction", which paradoxically, endangers health and even the survival of the person with the allergy.

Food AllergiesFood allergies can vary greatly from one individual to the next, and even from one episode to the next. This variability determines the nature, extent, and severity of symptoms. An allergic reaction is sometimes manifested by a tingling sensation or a mild rash; it can also cause breathing difficulties and even anaphylactic shock, a serious and potentially fatal allergic manifestation.

A large number of foods and ingredients are likely to cause allergies (peanuts, nuts, milk, eggs, seafood, soya, fruits, mustard, food coloring agents, etc.). An allergic reaction can occur after an allergen was ingested, inhaled or came into contact with the skin.

Individuals who suffer from a food allergy and the people close to them are aware of the risks of such a condition. They must deal with a constant threat, a great source of stress, and must absolutely avoid all contact with the allergen. This requires great vigilance, discipline, and precautionary measures.

A food intolerance: when the digestive tract says "No!"

Some people say that they are allergic to a particular food or ingredient when they actually have an intolerance to them. Not being able to tolerate a particular food or to reject it is not necessarily a sign of an allergy!

Food intoleranceA food intolerance is defined as an inability by the body to digest a particular food (or a substance present in the food). It is usually a reaction by the digestive tract and not by the immune system.

The mechanisms of a food intolerance vary. In some cases, a hypersensitivity by the digestive tract may be responsible. In other cases, it may be due to an enzyme deficiency needed to assimilate a substance by the body—an intolerance to lactose is a good example of this, since it is attributed to an enzyme deficiency called lactase. In order to consume milk products, individuals who suffer from lactose intolerance must take lactase supplements, which are offered in drop or tablet form.

A food intolerance can sometimes be explained by a condition or syndrome, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. Individuals affected by it must avoid ingesting certain foods that cause digestive problems.

Celiac disease is a condition that is often classified in the category of food intolerances. Moreover, some refer to it as a gluten intolerance. In reality this condition has an immune system component, for which the mechanisms differ from those of a "real" food allergy".

The range of manifestations of a food intolerance is quite vast and can include the following symptoms:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • stomach aches
  • abdominal cramps
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • bloating and flatulence
  • itching or skin rashes
  • headaches

If you suffer from a food intolerance, the best thing to do is to abstain from eating the food in question. Sometimes, solutions exist to prevent the problem or relieve symptoms associated with it. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about it.

The importance of calling things by their real name

Aside from food allergies and intolerances, an individual may refuse to eat certain foods for a variety of reasons: aversion, preferences or personal convictions (religious and so on), eating disorder, etc. Whatever the case, it's better to say things as they really are.

A food allergy is a serious disorder that can sometimes have tragic repercussions. Claiming to have an allergy when you don't really have one can contribute to making food allergies commonplace, a growing problem that can put the health of people who really have an allergy at risk. If you don't like garlic or if it gives you a sore stomach, be frank about it rather than using a food allergy as a pretext!

Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about food allergies or intolerances.


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Food allergies and intolerances: how to distinguish between them

Several reasons can prevent someone from eating certain foods, including a food allergy or intolerance.
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