Food allergy or intolerance – similar but very different
Some people use the terms ‘food allergy’ and ‘food intolerance’ as synonyms but this is incorrect. Some of the signs of food intolerance and allergy are similar but the difference between the two are very important. Eating a food to which you are intolerant can leave you feeling miserable. A true food allergy, however, could be life-threatening. Either way, a child whose body reacts negatively to something in her diet will find it more difficult to focus on schoolwork and do her best. It’s worth considering whether or not she has a food intolerance.
Let’s first consider the differences between the two conditions. If you’re allergic to a food, your immune system will consider the food as an enemy invader and defend the body with antibodies. These antibodies produce symptoms that can cover a range of conditions like hives, eczema, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, excessive winds and vomiting. More severe symptoms are termed anaphylactic and may include difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment – an injection of adrenalin – anaphylactic can be fatal.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, doesn’t involve the immune system. It takes place in the digestive system and is usually due to an inability to properly break down a particular food. This could be due to enzyme deficiencies, sensitivity to food additives (colourants and flavourants) or reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. The symptoms are sometimes vague and can include a combination of gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and wind, diarrhea, nausea and indigestion and aggravation of eczema and asthma. These symptoms often take long to emerge, often several hours or days so it is difficult to pinpoint what foods may be causing the symptoms. The symptoms too may take a couple of days to go away.
Almost any food can cause an intolerance but there are some types that occur more than others. Common culprits are dairy, gluten and foods that can lead to gas buildup, such as cabbage and beans. A specific type of intolerance can develop to the protein in wheat and other grains called gluten. This condition is called Coeliac disease.
The tricky thing about intolerances is that they are dose-dependent. This means that a certain amount of the offending substance has to be consumed before symptoms appear. Small quantities of the food may be handled by the body, unlike people with allergies, who must stay away from even the tiniest trace of the trigger food. Everyone is different, so the amount tolerated will vary from person to person.
If you suspect that your child has a food intolerance, you can try an elimination diet to decipher what food is causing problems. Keeping a food diary is useful because you need to be able to look back to see what might have been eaten a few days before.
What you need to remember is that while a food allergy will probably make itself conspicuous with the more severe symptoms, many food intolerances go unnoticed and ignored. Try to remember that these can negatively affect learning and behaviour – and if your child shows puzzling challenges, keep in mind that food might be the reason. Next week, we’ll list some behaviours that may indicate an intolerance to one or more foods.