Food Intolerance or Allergy? What’s the difference….

First thing’s first… a food intolerance and a food allergy are not the same!

For some people not knowing the difference between an intolerance and an allergy can be life threatening.  People requiring emergency medication due to an allergic food reaction is not an uncommon thing in emergency departments up and down the country and for some people the understanding of the differences between an allergy and intolerance can be confusing.

I have lost count of the times I have had to explain my personal situation to others, which I don’t mind, but sometimes it can be both annoying and embarrassing. Try explaining to a waiter “no I won’t die from your ice cream mate but ill trump like a Yorkshire brass band!” whilst still trying to be a lady! It can’t be done. But I get it, for the majority of people it can be confusing.

As a qualified nurse I am trained to give education and advice to help patients deal with understanding and recognising the symptoms of Intolerances as well as giving emergency medication for those suffering with a life threatening reactions. But as a sufferer myself I have developed a deeper understanding of the nuances and differences between living with a food allergy and a food intolerances.

As always you must seek professional medical advice if you think you have an intolerance or allergy.

So what’s the difference…

Food Intolerance

A food intolerance is a difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction to them.

It causes symptoms such as bloating and stomach pains, which usually come on a few hours after consuming the food, but it is not usually severe

Symptoms for food intolerance can include:

  • stomach pain
  • cramps
  • bloating
  • wind, diarrhoea
  • Itching
  • skin rashes

These symptoms can appear over several hours. Over the counter medications and homely remedies can help with the symptoms, but to be tummy pain free the best advice is to avoid the foods which you know makes you unwell  (sorry guys!)

Food Allergy

A food allergy is when the body immune system reacts unusually to specific foods. Although allergic reactions are often mild, they can be very serious and sometimes even fatal.

Symptoms for an allergic reaction can include:

  • rashes
  • itching
  • wheezing
  • swelling
  • Anaphylactic shock

These symptoms can come on rapidly and require emergency treatment.  You can have an allergic reaction from a very small amount of the food if your allergy is severe. Most people with severe allergies carry an emergency medication which they administer if a reaction is happening. People suffering an allergic reaction must be seen by medics rapidly.

When an allergy or intolerance is something else entirely….

There is a third condition in this little family…Coeliac disease which isn’t an allergy or an intolerance. Coeliac disease is a common digestive condition where the small intestine becomes inflamed and unable to absorb nutrients.  Gluten tends to trigger a range of digestive symptoms including diarrhoea, bloating, stomach pain and constipation. It can also cause fatigue, weight loss, itchy rash, issues getting pregnant and nerve damage. People with Coeliac disease must avoid gluten at all times.     

So the regular troublemakers….

In general terms those of us with intolerances tend to react to entire food groups such as dairy, whilst those of us who have allergies tend to have more specific foods that we will react to.

So the regular trouble makers for food intolerance folk are lactose and wheat.  I myself am lactose intolerant and wheat intolerant (it is possible I am wheat allergic but I couldn’t manage the tests, however that’s another story!)

The common mistake when people start having intolerances to dairy is that it’s the milk itself that’s making them unwell, when actually it’s the sugar within the milk that’s the issue, the Lactose. Us folks with lactose intolerance have issues producing lactase, a substance which helps break down the sugar found in dairy products. By not breaking it down, the sugar stays in the digestive system where it’s fermented by bacteria, euw! 

People with lactose intolerance can have milk and milk based products they just need to be lactose free for a happy digestive system.

Wheat intolerance or Gluten intolerance is a big talking point at the moment as there are many different schools of thought to why more and more people are becoming wheat intolerant. Some say it’s a change in our bodies from an evolutionary perspective others say the change in chemicals there using on the wheat in the cultivation stage is causing the issues. Whichever one it is if your body hates it I say cut it out! But that’s just my opinion.

The regular trouble makers that trigger an allergic food reaction are tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, soya, lupin, mustard, molluscs, milk, eggs, fish and soya. But people can be allergic to many a different foods. I have issues with mint, rosemary, thyme, grapefruit, melons and grapefruit. My symptoms range from tightness of my chest to swelling of my tongue and mouth blisters. If you have an allergic reaction to any food you must not consume them, also let people around know of your allergies to help provide you with a safe environment to enjoy food.   

Welcome to the wonderful world of label checking….

Now I’m not saying I’m mystic Meg or anything but I can spot someone with an intolerance or allergy a mile off, oh we do love to check labels!

Well you have to, because the sneaky food makers hide allergens everywhere!

Foods you thought you were safe with, you might not be. You’d be surprised what you can find in the ingredients.  As someone who has multiple intolerance and allergies I read everything and what I don’t know I Google. Due to a change in the law in 2014  companies now are starting to make the consumers more aware of what’s in their products by highlighting the allergy advice in bold and eateries must make customers aware of the allergens in all there dishes, including where the foods prepared and cooked.

Always ask!

I’ve been caught out a few times in the early stages of understanding my conditions when I’ve seen items like chips on a menu thinking, Ooh potatoes are gluten free happy days chips ahoy! Only to find out they’ve been cooked in the same oil gluten products have been in. You might feel like your bothering folks if you keep asking questions but they won’t be the ones in pain or making friends with their toilet for the next 6 hours. So don’t be embarrassed, just ask away.

And finally….

I don’t want you guys to think I’m some food intolerant angel who always sticks to her lactose free gluten free vegetarian menu, because I’m not, well not the lactose bit anyways! And you guys might not be either.

All I will say is be careful. If you have an allergy please stay clear of that food; you don’t want to put your health at risk just for a snack. And if you have intolerances get to know your body, know what you can manage and how much, I understand I will feel rubbish after ice cream but I love it!

And remember food is for enjoying not restricting so keep munching folks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s