Food allergies vs. intolerances vs. sensitivities. What’s the difference and why does it matter?

The terms food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies are often confused or (incorrectly) used interchangeably. When Naturopathic Doctors are investigating digestive concerns, we use all three of these terms to determine what might be causing your symptoms and how to best to test for and treat them.

Eggs, dairy, and wheat are three of the most common food sensitivities we see clinically!

Food Allergies
A true food allergy occurs when the immune system responds immediately to a particular food. Common food allergies include peanuts or shellfish. Symptoms can include hives, shortness of breath, or anaphylaxis and typically present within minutes after ingestion. Testing for immediate-type food allergies is typically unnecessary as it is usually readily apparent which food caused the problem. If testing is needed it is done via skin prick or blood testing. Food allergies usually need to be avoided life long, however some children do out grow them over time.

Food Sensitivities
Food sensitivities are also caused by an immune system reaction, but instead of an immediate reaction they cause delayed symptoms which can appear anywhere from hours to days after ingestion. These symptoms can include digestive complaints such as bloating and constipation, as well as non-digestive complaints such as headaches, fatigue, skin concerns, and joint pain. Identifying food sensitivities can be difficult due to the delayed nature of their symptoms. A supervised elimination type diet or specialized blood testing through your naturopathic doctor are the most effective ways to identify food sensitivities. Generally, food sensitivities are avoided or eliminated from the diet for several months and then gradually reintroduced following a gut-healing protocol.

Food Intolerances
Intolerances (unlike allergies and sensitivities) are NOT due to the immune system reacting to food. Instead, they are typically due to the body not being able to properly digest, absorb, or metabolize certain foods. The most common example of this is a lactose intolerance, in which the body does not produce the lactase enzyme. This stops the body from breaking down and digesting lactose or milk products and results in symptoms like bloating, flatulence, cramping, pain and diarrhea. You can reduce the uncomfortable symptoms of food intolerances by supplementing with the enzymes your body is lacking (for example: lactase pills) or avoiding the food all together.

The digestive system (or ‘the gut’ as we fondly refer to it as) is vital to overall health. As many of our patients can attest to, a poorly functioning gut can result in a variety of health concerns and chronic complaints down the line. 

If you’re frustrated with confusing food reactions, random symptoms, and can’t seem to identify what the problem is, it is important to have yourself properly assessed and tested by a qualified professional. You could have an allergy, sensitivity, intolerance, or any combination of the three!

Still have questions? Let us know, we’re here to help!

Dr. Katie