Healthy Living Magazine


Food Sensitivity or Food Allergy? According to the old adage, ‘one man’s food is another man’s poison.’ 
Yes, different people can have radically different reactions to exactly the same food. But is that reaction the result of a food sensitivity or a food allergy? 
Shawn Nisbet explains the difference.

At least 30% of us will experience one or more episodes of some kind of food sensitivity during our lifetime. Moreover, the symptoms experienced may produce varying degrees of physical discomfort which are often never related to food as their source. There is increasing evidence that food sensitivities are more common and have a wider and more varied impact on our health than previously thought. We often equate food allergies and food sensitivities, but they are not the same. Food sensitivities, also known as food intolerances, do not involve the immune system and are often more difficult to diagnose. Some symptoms of food sensitivities are vomiting, diarrhea, eczema, urticaria (hives), skin rashes, heartburn, wheezing and runny noses. But all of these symptoms may also be signs of food allergies. Food sensitivities, however, can also cause a host of other symptoms, such as fatigue, gas, bloating, irritable bowel disease, mood swings, fibromyalgia pain, ‘brain fog’, nervousness, migraines and depression.

Some studies are beginning to associate food sensitivities with increased severity of symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and other diseases not normally related to the foods we eat. So what are food sensitivities? It is puzzling to some to think that many of the above mentioned symptoms can be caused or made worse by the common foods we eat every day – foods generally considered healthy. Most of us have a reaction to a food we have eaten from time to time. When eating spicy Indian food or a hot salsa, for example, your nose may start running, or perhaps you have eaten too many beans and experienced bloating or gas, or suffered the all too common headache from drinking wine. If you are lactose intolerant, you could experience gas, bloating or even diarrhea if you drink cow’s milk or eat cheese. Food sensitivities or intolerances are not caused by the immune system, and diagnosis can be difficult because symptoms may be delayed for up to two or three days after a food has been consumed. The more commonly known ‘food allergy’ A food allergy is different. Food allergies are defined as toxic clinical reactions to food or food additives that involve the immune system. When you are allergic to a food or foods, your immune system reacts abnormally to that specific food. An allergic symptom can range from a mild skin rash or itchy eyes to a more serious, deadly reaction called anaphylaxis.

Any or all of these symptoms may develop: 

• Flushed face, hive or rash, red and 
itchy skin

• Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, throat 
and tongue 

• Impaired breathing, speaking or swallowing

• Anxiety, distress, faintness, paleness, weakness

• Cramps, diarrhea, vomiting

• Drop in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, 
loss of consciousness

Source: Health Canada

Your immune system is a complex network whose cells and molecules are found throughout your body to protect it from potentially harmful foreign molecules. Your immune system is most active in the areas of the body which have some direct contact with the outside world, such as the skin, lungs, nose and gastrointestinal tract. As the majority of potentially harmful molecules enter your body through your intestinal tract, it is not surprising that over 60% of immune activity occurs in this area. How do you recognize a food allergy?

You can suspect allergy any time you have an inflammation anywhere in your body. An allergy follows the cardinal signs of inflammation, pain, swelling, heat and redness. If on the skin, for example, hives will produce the swelling, appear red, feel warm and be painful.
 In a highly allergic person, even a tiny amount of a food allergen (for example, 1/44,000 of a peanut kernel) can prompt an allergic reaction. Some sensitive people, however, may be able to eat small amounts of the very food to which they are allergic.

Foods that cause allergic reactions

Over 140 different foods have been identified as causes of allergic reactions. The foods most frequently associated with inducing allergies are:

• Cow’s milk 

• Eggs

• Peanuts 

• Tree nuts, i.e. walnuts and pecans 

• Wheat 

• Soy 

• Shrimp 

• Fish

• Oranges 

• Chicken 

• Strawberries 

• Tomatoes

• Spinach 

• Pork 

• Corn 

• Beef

The importance of reading food labels

Avoiding the problem food is key to controlling food allergies, but it isn’t always that easy. Milk, eggs and nuts may be hidden as ingredients in other foods. Most baked goods, such as cakes and cookies, contain eggs and/or nuts. Water-packed tuna may have non-fat dairy milk added. Soybean oil may be hidden in a salad dressing. A hot dog may contain milk protein.

Food sensitivities or food intolerance

These do not involve the immune system. More people actually suffer from food sensitivities than food allergies. It is estimated that 15 to 20% of the population has developed sensitivities to common foods and food chemical additives, such as: 

• MSG 

• Nitrates

• Lactose 

• Tyrosine 

• Preservatives and additives

• Gluten

• Sweeteners

• Food colourings

Why food sensitivities are harder to diagnose:

Reactions can take up to three days to appear. Reactions are often dose related, meaning if you eat a little you might not feel ill, but if you eat a lot you will experience more severe symptoms. Many convenience and processed foods today contain multiple food and food additive ingredients making it difficult to determine which ingredient is to blame. Reactive foods vary greatly from person to person and can include the healthiest foods a person may eat. One person may be sensitive to broccoli, bananas and sesame seeds, while the next person may be sensitive to apples and cinnamon. People are usually sensitive to many foods, not just a few. Usually the foods to which you are sensitive are the very foods you crave, and as a result, consume daily. Every time you consume a food to which you are sensitive your body releases painful, inflammatory chemicals that cause a wide variety of symptoms:

• Bloating

• ‘Brain fog’ 

• Vomiting (cyclical) 

• Fibromyalgia

• Fatigue

• Heartburn

• Inflammatory bowel disease

• Irritable bowel syndrome 

• Joint and muscle pain

• Migraines

• Sinus congestion

Identifying reactive foods: Food allergy versus food sensitivity tests

Before you begin removing important nutritious foods or food groups from your diet, it is important to find out from a professional what foods you truly need to eliminate. Ask your doctor, health care provider or nutritionist for information about food allergy and food sensitivity tests. You will then be able to develop a nutritional plan that nourishes your body.

Shawn Nisbet, RHN, CFA, is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, certified fitness consultant and Nordic pole walking master instructor. Tel: 416.804.0938.


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