Throwing a dinner party has become a difficult task, since just about everyone apparently has to avoid one ingredient or another due to a food allergy or intolerance. If you’re like me, you’re often left wondering: Do all these people really suffer from food allergies, or is it simply trendy to give up certain foods?
The answer is somewhat complex, so here’s some straightforward information on food allergies, food sensitivities, current food trends, and how all of these tend to get mixed up.
What’s the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?
A food allergy is an adverse immune response to a food – usually the protein component of a food. Food allergies are serious and can be life threatening if the allergic food is eaten. A food intolerance (same as sensitivity) is a difficulty or inability to digest a component of food – usually the sugar component. Food intolerances may be unpleasant, but they don’t involve the immune system and are generally not harmful beyond uncomfortable symptoms.
What are the most common food allergies?
Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish/shellfish, soy, wheat, and sesame seeds. (Notice all these foods contain protein).
What are some symptoms of food allergies?
Shortness of breath, wheezing, difficulty swallowing, itching of the mouth/lips/tongue/throat, swelling, hives, rash, congestion, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, lightheadedness. These symptoms often require quick treatment, and an allergic person needs to avoid the offending foods completely.
What are some symptoms of food intolerance?
Symptoms are almost always digestion-related: gas, bloating, stomachache, diarrhea and/or constipation. These symptoms can often be controlled by limiting the quantity of the food eaten, eating the offending food in combination with other foods, or avoiding certain foods in the offending food group.
Example: dairy allergy vs. lactose intolerance
Those who are lactose intolerant lack the enzyme required to digest lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in milk. These people generally have digestive distress when eating creamy sauce or ice cream, but can often eat yogurt, kefir, aged cheese, or Lactaid milk with no problem. Eating dairy in small quantities tends to help, as does taking lactase enzyme pills before a meal.
People with a dairy allergy on the other hand, may suffer from vomiting, wheezing, and/or hives immediately (or up to a few hours) after drinking milk or eating milk products. In these cases the type of dairy eaten doesn’t really matter, and avoiding dairy products and foods with dairy derivatives is the best remedy.
How do I know which I have?
If you or your family member experiences unpleasant or severe symptoms after eating a particular food, see your doctor right away, and keep a food record of everything eaten. It will be easier for a specialist to diagnose your issue if you can describe exactly what is happening when, and a food record will allow you to do that.
Why do so many people seem to have food allergies and sensitivities?
A few reasons.
1. Heightened awareness. The more a population knows about a health concern, the more true and false cases there will be.
2. Many of us eat processed foods that are made with tons of food derivatives and additives, so if we have a reaction or unpleasant symptom, we may not know what caused it or where it came from.
3. It’s trendy. Gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, soy-free, etc are all popular food trends right now. While some people must be on such diets because of real, serious health concerns (e.g. celiac disease or diabetes), others may adopt a restrictive diet in the hopes that doing so will aid in weight loss. Diets created for those with food intolerances or health problems are not weight loss plans, and are not the best way to approach healthier eating unless an allergy or intolerance is known.
4. Portion sizes. We eat such large portions of food these days, and of such high-calorie foods, that it’s no wonder many of us get stomach aches after eating. If you notice you feel sick after eating pasta at a restaurant, it’s more likely the amount of food you ate, rather than the pasta (or gluten, or wheat) itself that caused the discomfort. Moderating portion sizes would make most of us feel better.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or food allergy specialist, so if you have questions about your own allergies, sensitivities, or health in general, consult your doctor.