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Food Allergy VS. Food Intolerance

It’s pretty common for children to have a reaction to a certain food, but in most cases it's an intolerance rather than a true allergy. Why does it matter? Although they may have similar symptoms, a food allergy can be more serious. The following guidelines could help you determine whether your child's reaction to a certain food is brought about by an allergy or an intolerance.

Food Allergy: Food intolerance
When the immune system mistakes something in food as harmful and attacks it. And therefore, affecting the whole body, not just the stomach.
  • Usually comes on suddenly
  • Small amount of food can trigger
  • Happens every time the food is eaten
  • Can be life-threatening
  • Rash, hives or itchy skin
  • Shortness of breat
  • Chest pain
  • Sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Trouble swallowing / breathing
Common food allergies:
  • Peanuts & tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds)
  • Fish & Shellfish
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Wheat
What about gluten allergy?
While celiac disease (a long-lasting digestive condition that’s triggered by eating gluten and does involve the immune system, it doesn’t cause life-threatening symptoms)

When a food irritates the stomach or the body can't properly digest it.
  • Usually comes on gradually
  • May only happen when a lot of the food is eaten
  • May only happen if the food is consumed often
  • Is not life-threatening
  • Gas, cramps, bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Headaches
  • Irritability / Nervousness
Common food intolerances:
  • Lactose intolerance:
    Happens when people can’t digest lactose (a sugar found in milk and dairy)
  • Sensitivity to sulfites or other food additives.:
    This can trigger asthma attacks 

Shared symptoms of food allergies & intolerances:
  • Nausea
  • Stomach Pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
Treating food allergies & intolerances: 
Food Allergy: 
Stop eating the food altogether 

Food Intolerance: 
Avoid / cut back on the food causing fire-up 

For lactose intolerance; use lactose-free milk or take lactase enzyme supplements 

Preventing symptoms of allergies & intolerances:
  • Learn which foods and how much of them trigger symptoms
  • Either avoid the food or only have as much as you/your child can have without triggering symptoms.
  • When eating out, ask your server about how the meal will be prepared. It may not always be clear from the menu whether some dishes contain problem-causing foods.
  • Learn to read food labels and check the ingredients for trigger-foods. Don't forget to check condiments and seasonings as well; they may contain Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) or another additive that can cause symptoms.

By Raya M. AbuYounis
Registered Clinical Nutritionist (King's College London -UK)
MSc International Health Management (Imperial College London -UK)