Guest Submission By: Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
Researchers estimate approximately four percent of Americans have a food allergy and one in ten have a food intolerance. The primary difference between these conditions comes from the origin, how they are diagnosed and how they are treated. Understanding the difference between a food allergy and intolerance can help keep children and adults safe from discomfort and potentially harmful reactions.
More than 50 million Americans have some type of food allergy. These are triggered when the immune system identifies a food as a danger to the body, creating a physical response varying in severity for every person. In some cases, reactions to a food allergy can be life-threatening. Common food allergies include eggs, fish and shellfish, dairy, peanuts, soy and tree nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc.). To identify and treat a food allergy, it’s important to consult a primary care doctor or allergist. Blood tests, skin tests and trying an elimination diet can help determine exactly which foods cause a reaction. Symptoms vary, but may include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Ear infections
- Itchy mouth
- Skin rashes or hives
- Swollen lips and/or mouth
- Throat tightening
- Upset stomach
A food intolerance, also known as food sensitivity, occurs when the body has difficulty digesting certain foods. Although they can still lead to serious health issues if left untreated, food intolerances are known to cause less severe reactions than food allergies. Food sensitivities are most commonly linked to lactose, gluten, caffeine, histamines and additives (food coloring, artificial sweeteners, etc.) and it generally takes the body longer to react than it would to a food allergy. Common symptoms of a food intolerance or sensitivity include:
- Flushing of skin
- Runny nose
- Stomach ache
Tips to Stay Safe
Once a food allergy or intolerance has been diagnosed, it’s important to be aware of situations and environments when the risk of a reaction is higher. It’s critical to have an emergency care plan or kit
nearby and find ways to avoid the risk of a reaction at home, social gatherings and while traveling.
- At Home: Store products that comply with dietary needs in a separate location of the kitchen than those that do not. It’s also helpful to designate a set of cutting boards, plates or utensils that should never touch foods deemed potentially unsafe. Cooking meals at home puts an individual in the driver seat of what’s being consumed and improves the odds of avoiding accidents or unknown ingredients in processed and premade dishes.
- Dining Out: Be conscious of the food environment at restaurants and social gatherings. Explore the menu beforehand and inform the waitress or party host of the allergy or intolerance so others are conscious of potentially harmful foods and ingredients. At potluck parties, ask for dishes to be labelled or bring foods that comply with dietary restrictions.
- Traveling: When planning a trip away from home, be diligent in planning ahead. Pack as many diet-friendly foods as possible, read ingredient lists for items bought along the way and ensure an emergency kit is nearby for potential accidents.
For more tips on health and wellness, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.
More About the Author
Grace is a wife and a mommy of two amazing children, Kahlea and Tommy. She is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and a featured blogger at A Healthier Michigan. She graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in dietetics and a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. Grace has also earned a Master of Business Administration from Wayne State University. She has a number of certifications to help her educate people regarding how to live a healthier lifestyle, including a weight loss management certification and experience as a group fitness instructor.
*Photos courtesy of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan