With gluten-free dining options proliferating and a constant stream of new milk substitutes on the grocery shelf, it would seem that diagnosis of food allergies and intolerances are on the rise. On the contrary, statistics show that the prevalence of self-reported food sensitivities is almost twice those diagnosed by a medical provider. In Canada, it has been estimated that seven percent of Canadians self-report a food allergy, while physician-diagnosed food allergies are actually prevalent in five to six percent of young children and three to four percent of adults. The same is true in the United States, where self-reported food allergy is present among 9.1% of survey respondents, with 5.3% of all respondents reporting a doctor-diagnosed food allergy.
When people self-diagnose a food allergy, they often conflate them with a food intolerance. Despite the level of sensitivity, elimination from the diet can affect physical and psychological wellbeing; however, in many instances it is important to have a medical provider involved in the diagnosis and management of food allergies and intolerances.
Eating a food you are intolerant to can leave you feeling poorly; however it is much different that a true food allergy. Exposure to a food allergen through ingestion, touch or inhalation can cause a serious or even life-threatening reaction due to a severe immune response. It is caused when the body mistakes an ingredient in food — usually a protein — as harmful. This response results in the release of histamine and antibodies to create a defense system against the protein. The release of histamine molecules from immune cells causes the body to swell and itch.
Symptoms of allergic reactions to foods are generally seen on the skin in the form of hives, itchiness, and swelling. In more serious cases such as anaphylaxis, symptoms can present in the mouth and respiratory tract causing difficulty with breathing, dizziness, tongue swelling and loss of consciousness. In these cases, immediate treatment with a medication call epinephrine is essential to prevent fatality along with expert care of a trained physician.
A food intolerance can present in a plethora of different ways, the most common being digestive symptoms or headaches. In intolerance, the body develops antibodies to a food different than those developed in an allergy. These antibodies still cause an immune response but the symptoms can be much less severe, such as acid reflux, diarrhea, weight gain, constipation, brain fog or migraine headaches. Often, people with an intolerance are able to eat small amounts of the food without causing significant problems. They may also be able to prevent a reaction through the use of over the counter medications or nutraceuticals. For example, if you have lactose intolerance, you may be able to drink lactose-free milk or take lactase enzyme pills to aid digestion.
Some instances of self-diagnosis of food sensitivities come down to circumstance. If foods are eaten in combination, which they frequently are, it becomes difficult to discern which food is the causative agent. Commercial baking a prime example where many key food intolerances and placed into one product, wheat, soy, gluten, yeast and eggs. In addition, some foods can be rancid or spoiled causing nausea due to a reaction to the bacteria in the spoiled food not a food sensitivity, such as with shellfish.
The risk of diagnosing a food “allergy” independent of a medical evaluation is the subsequent elimination of the food from the diet and possible nutrient deficiencies. Some allergens are high in essential nutrients for the body, and alternatives need to be discussed both in the form of diet and nutraceuticals to account for this nutrient deficit. Cutting all fish from your diet deprives you of a prime source of healthy protein, not to mention the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The main nutritional deficiency from erasing wheat from the diet is the B vitamins, essential for energy production and a healthy nervous system. All of these nutrients can be found in other sources, but many people concentrate too much on eliminating foods and not enough on replacing them.
If you believe you suffer from a food allergy or an intolerance, it is in your best interest to work with a trained physician to discuss your symptoms and possible causes. What you believe to be symptoms of an allergy could be being caused by a more serious condition or something entirely different. It is important not to make dramatic changes to your diet without the support and guidance of a professional trained in nutrition and aware of the nutrient deficiencies that may occur.