Food Intolerances vs Allergies – What You Need To Know

It’s clear that allergies and intolerances are on the rise. Back in our parent’s day, there was one or two kids in the entire school with food allergies. Now, there are half a dozen in every classroom. And adults are not immune to developing sensitivities either. But what is the difference between food allergies and intolerances, and how are they managed? Here is an introduction to the facts.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an acute reaction from the immune system to a particular food or food particle. 

Symptoms can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Tight chest 
  • Swelling around the face, lips and/or eyes 
  • Swelling of the tongue and throat 
  • Hives, welts and/or rash on the skin 

In severe cases, known as anaphylaxis, the airways can be blocked off by the swelling of the throat. These cases are potentially fatal. 

However, not every allergy is obvious – often young children and babies can experience mild allergies. In this case, chronic diarrhoea, reflux, colic and failure to thrive can be signs of a mild allergy. 

There are 9 foods that are responsible for around 90% of allergic reactions:

  1. Cow’s milk 
  2. Eggs
  3. Peanuts
  4. Tree nuts
  5. Sesame
  6. Soy
  7. Fish
  8. Shellfish 
  9. Wheat

How is it managed?

Because an allergic response is potentially life-threatening, the main goal is to avoid the allergen at all costs. However, there are studies looking into the potential of probiotics for reducing allergies.

If the problematic food is a particularly nutritious one, the diet may need to be altered to ensure that the nutrients are obtained from other sources. People with multiple allergies will also need dietary support to ensure they are getting all of the nutrients they need to be healthy. 

What is a food intolerance?

To put it simply, a food intolerance is a negative reaction to a food, drink, or part of a food. It is generally a slower reaction, with symptoms taking minutes or even hours to develop. Common intolerances include gluten, dairy and fructose, but almost any compound consumed has the potential for intolerance. 

Unlike allergies, a food intolerance is usually due to an inability to digest and absorb the food properly. This might be due to a deficiency of an enzyme, malabsorption, or an improper response from the immune system to a food. 

A lot of people disregard food intolerances. But they are very real, and can do undiagnosed for a long time if your GP or health team aren’t aware of them. 

Symptoms can include:

  • Digestive discomfort
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhoea and/or constipation 
  • Fatigue
  • Nasal congestion 
  • Headaches
  • Brain fog

As you can see, these symptoms can be very non-specific. So if you’re experiencing them hours after consuming a food, you may not even realise it is the culprit.

How is it managed?

As it is easy to consume a food you are intolerant to, it is easier for it to do more damage to the body. So the first step is to eliminate the problematic food(s). Treating the effects of inflammation and gut bacteria imbalances is also important.

Can you heal intolerances?

Unlike food allergies, an intolerance may not be permanent. They can develop due to poor digestion and absorption. So if you can optimise your digestion and absorption, there is a possibility of healing the intolerance. Depending on the original cause and severity, you may be able to tolerate small doses of the food after healing the gut.

Are food allergies and intolerances getting on your nerves? Dr. Rebecca Farthing (osteopath & naturopath) is here to help. Book an appointment online or call 9773 8085.



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This blog post is an educational tool only.  It is not a replacement for medical advice from a registered and qualified doctor or health professional.

Any other questions not answered here? Get in touch with us!

Phone: (03) 9773 8085

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