Food Allergy vs. Food Sensitivity

Confused about the differences between a food allergy, food sensitivity, or food intolerance? Today I’m breaking it all down for you, so you understand how each one affects your body. Some are easier to diagnose than others, which can lead to confusion when your doctor says everything is “normal.”

Eggs Wheat Food Allergy

What is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy is the easiest category to understand from a clinical point of view. If you, or your child, is allergic to a specific food, it will show up on a blood test as a positive IgE reaction.

Immunoglobulin E (IgE) are antibodies produced by the immune system.

If you have an allergy, your immune system overreacts to an allergen by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction. This reaction usually causes symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, or on the skin. (source)

There is a rise in food allergies among adults and children. There are currently 32 million Americans with food allergies. (source) Peanut allergies in children have doubled in the past five years in children under the age of five.

Here is the list of the Top 8 allergens, though there are 170 foods that have been documented as allergens.

  • Milk

  • Eggs

  • Peanuts

  • Tree Nuts

  • Wheat

  • Soy

  • Fish/Shellfish

How to Spot a Food Allergy?

Typically, symptoms occur with a food allergy immediately after consuming the food, up to two hours later. The most common symptoms are itching, hives, skin rash, thinking of the throat, and watery eyes or nose. Less common, but more severe symptoms, are throat constricting and anaphylactic shock.

Anaphylaxis requires an injection of epinephrine and a follow-up trip to an emergency room. If you don’t have epinephrine, you need to go to an emergency room immediately. If anaphylaxis isn’t treated right away, it can be fatal.

are your digestive issues from a food sensitivity

What is a Food Sensitivity?

Food sensitivity is an even larger category of adults and children. It’s estimated that 10-20% of all Americans have a food sensitivity. While a food allergy affects your body quickly, a food sensitivity can show up several hours or even days after eating a particular food.

When a food “doesn’t agree with you,” that’s a good indication you have a food sensitivity. In clinical terms, your body will produce an immune response of IgG, IgA, IgM, and IgC. Despite the immune system being involved, it is harder to test for food sensitivities. (I’ll explain more below.)

Food sensitivity is simply a sign your digestive system is changing,” says Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “It can be physically unpleasant at times, but there are ways to manage this change without affecting your overall diet and ensure you keep getting the vital nutrients you need.” (source)

There are a variety of causes of food sensitivities. Some of the more common causes are an underlying infection, parasite, candida, SIBO, enzyme deficiency, medications, or poor lifestyle habits.

What are the Symptoms of a Food Sensitivity?

As a health coach specializing in uncovering food sensitivities, I will tell you there is a wide range of symptoms related to food sensitivities. I think this is why it’s often dismissed in your doctor’s appointment, as it’s often hard to connect the dots.

Here’s what I see as the most complaints related to food sensitivity:

  • fatigue
  • brain fog
  • mood swings
  • digestive complaints (bloating, constipation, diarrhea)
  • skin rashes
  • acne
  • PMS symptoms
  • insomnia
  • headaches/migraines

In children, food sensitivities are also connected to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior problems, learning challenges, and frequent ear infections.

EverlyWell Food Sensitivity Test How To

Are at-home Food Sensitivity Tests accurate?

Several at-home food sensitivity tests are available without a doctor’s order.

But do they work?

There is still a lot of debate about the accuracy of these tests. The most readily available one is the EverlyWell 96 Food Sensitivity Test or the EverlyWell 204 Food Sensitivity Test. They test for IgG immune responses. You would want to take this test before trying an elimination diet to give you the best results. Another more comprehensive option is Viome.

You take the blood test at home and wait for the results, which can take up to two weeks. The results will tell you if a particular food is not reactive or up to highly reactive. {Note, this test is not available in all states due to testing regulations.}

I find the at-home food sensitivity tests are a great starting point if you try to determine what could be causing your symptoms. If your doctor isn’t a good partner, this can give you some concrete data to get further support from a nutritionist or health coach.

The gold standard in figuring out your food sensitivities is an Elimination Diet. This is what I help clients figure out when they really want to uncover their food sensitivities. As we better understand gut health and its role in mental health and immunity, I expect we will see a lot more advancements in food sensitivity testing in the coming years.

food sensitivity to milk and egg

What about Food Intolerance?

You may be more familiar with the idea of food intolerance, but don’t understand how it actually affects your body. Lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, and fructose intolerance involve a lack of enzymes needed to break down these foods.

Lactose intolerances affect about 25% of Americans where you have a deficiency in lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. This can cause you to feel cramping, bloating, acne, gas, eczema, or nausea.

Food intolerances are typically tested via an elimination diet, or with a hydrogen breath test.


Healing Options for Food Sensitivities and Food Allergies

Once you have figured out which food(s) are causing your symptoms, you will want to avoid it for 4-6 months to let your system reset. Some clients have been able to heal their gut and later add back in the foods that were causing them distress, usually in smaller amounts than before. Finding the right digestive enzyme is another option to help you manage your food sensitivities and food intolerances.

Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Please book a free call if you want to explore further the potential causes of your food sensitivities, food allergies, or food intolerance.