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Is it food allergy or food sensitivity?

What is good and bad for you: know the difference between food allergies and food sensitivities

I’ve been walking around all week feeling like there are rocks in my handbag. Life has been a blur recently, so there’s pretty much anything and everything in there. Changes of clothes, toys for the girls, make-up, hairbrushes, work diaries, pens, the usual detritus that collects over time and, as it turns out, rocks.

Belle doesn’t like to come home from the beach empty-handed so there have been a lot of shells and rocks in my world. They get stashed in all sorts of odd places — under her pillow, behind the curtains and in her lunch box too. Little did I know that she’s been donating them to me as well. So in the middle section of my bag, the one that just gets used for pens and Tampax — what else is it for? — I found three large rocks and a handful of pebbles. Not so light as it turns out.

That was a good lesson in following my instinct. If my bag is so heavy I think it’s got rocks in, I should probably check. Because it really might. Likewise, if I don’t feel great after eating something healthy, I should probably question it. I can’t tell you how many people come into the clinic persistently eating something “because it’s healthy” even if they don’t feel good.

Different things work for different people at different times in their lives. One person’s superfood can be another person’s poison. Food reactions are extremely variable. Food “sensitivities” are often the most confusing because, unlike a true food allergy, sensitivity symptoms (though sometimes debilitating) are often vague and hard to pinpoint. But what’s the difference between an allergy and sensitivity anyway? Let’s clear that up.

Many people refer to themselves as having food “allergies”, but in reality true allergies are quite rare occurring, for example, in only 2 per cent of American adults and 6 per cent of children. The rest have a food sensitivity (or intolerance). The onset of food allergy symptoms is usually rapid and severe, for example:

• The reaction may cause itching in the mouth as eating begins

• Digestive symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach pain

• Allergies can cause blood pressure to drop as allergens travel through the bloodstream

• As they reach the skin, allergies can cause hives, itching and eczema

• When allergens reach the mouth/lungs, they can cause the throat to tighten and result in laboured breathing

Allergic reactions can take place within minutes of eating the offending food, or up to 24 hours. However it’s also worth noting that mild reactions can accumulate and result in a severe reaction, even when exposed to as little as 1/5000 of a teaspoon of the food.

Food allergy, of course, often results in anaphylaxis which is commonly associated with peanut allergy but can also be triggered by other foods too. Symptoms of anaphylactic shock include (but are not limited to): respiratory distress, low blood pressure, fainting, unconsciousness, hives, vomiting, abdominal pain, an impending sense of doom and — left untreated — death. The most common allergenic foods for adults are shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and fish. The most common allergenic foods for kids are eggs, cow’s milk, peanuts and tree nuts.

In contrast, food sensitivity (or intolerance) reactions affect quality of life without being life-threatening. As symptoms are not necessarily immediate (manifesting up to 72 hours later) and less severe, people with sensitivities are often considered to be “fussy”. And yet, the symptoms include: colic in babies, behavioural problems in children, eczema, asthma, skin problems, diarrhoea, constipation, stomach pains, bloating (often severe), headaches/migraine, anxiety/palpitations, fatigue and fainting. So you can see why they’re a problem! Common food sensitivities include (but are not limited to) wheat, gluten, dairy/milk, eggs, soy and yeast. And they’re cropping up everywhere, half the people I know have an issue with some type of food or another, why is that?

It’s true that the rise in food allergy and sensitivity has been pretty rapid. Diagnosis is more common and efficient, so that contributes to the statistics certainly. I’ve heard people say, “No one had food sensitivities in my day”. Maybe they did (but were just undiagnosed) or maybe something has significantly changed? If you compare a list of chemicals used in farming now to a list of chemicals used, say 60 years ago, you’d be horrified. And that’s before we’ve got onto preservatives, additives and the issue of GMOs. I’m not saying that those are always bad, but I am saying it’s contributed a huge change to our food supply. So maybe it’s not the food that’s the problem, but rather, what’s being done to our food.

If you suspect you’re reacting to something in your diet, it’s important you see a dietitian or nutritionist for help. It’s all too easy to become over-restrictive and to start missing essential nutrients from your diet. But it’s also a good reason to switch to organic where you can and to follow a “clean eating” or “real food” protocol.

Keeping things simple is great for addressing overeating and food addiction too. Our taste buds have been wildly overstimulated for far too long. The more salt, sugar and processed fat we have, the more we want. Very quickly, we can lose touch with what real food tastes like, and find ourselves in a situation where only junk will do. You’ll need to go cold turkey for a few days, but it really doesn’t take long to get over the hump. I’ll be sharing some of my favourite recipes on Facebook over the weekend, so join me there and let’s clean it up. They’re all allergy/sensitivity friendly too, so no one has to miss out!

The advice given in this article is not intended to replace medical advice, but to complement it. Always consult your GP if you have any health concerns. Catherine Burns is a fully qualified nutritional therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the UK. Please note that she is not a registered dietitian. For details: www.natural.bm, 236-7511 or, Facebook, Natural Nutrition Bermuda