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The Important Distinctions Between Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivities

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When we talk about food-related issues, we often throw around the terms "allergy," "intolerance," and "sensitivity." But do you know the differences between them?

Not all reactions to food are created equal, and understanding the distinctions between them can help you identify the cause of your discomfort, seek appropriate treatment, and prevent future reactions.

In this article, we'll break down the science behind food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities, and help you understand how they affect your body.

Food Allergy

Food allergy is a reaction of the immune system in which the body mistakenly identifies certain proteins in food as harmful.

These proteins, known as allergens, trigger an immediate and often severe response by the immune system, causing symptoms such as hives, swelling, breathing difficulties, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction).

Food allergies affect around 4% of adults and 4-6% of children and can be diagnosed through skin tests, blood tests, and oral food challenges. 

Avoiding the allergen is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction, but medications such as antihistamines and epinephrine can help control symptoms. Talk to your doctor before using any new drug.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is a digestive system disorder in which the body is unable to digest certain components of food, such as lactose (found in milk), fructose (found in fruit), or gluten (found in wheat, barley, and rye).

People with food intolerance may experience symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or flatulence after consuming these foods. Unlike food allergy, food intolerance does not involve the immune system and is not life-threatening.

Food intolerance can often be managed by avoiding the trigger food or replacing it with alternatives. For example, a person with lactose intolerance can replace milk with almond or coconut milk.

Additionally, some people may benefit from special diets such as the low FODMAP diet which restricts certain carbohydrates known to cause digestive problems in some people.

Finally, there are tests available from healthcare providers that can help identify food intolerances and underlying digestive issues.

Food Sensitivity

Food sensitivity is a delayed reaction to certain foods that may not involve the immune system or the digestive system.

Symptoms of food sensitivity can be vague and include headaches, joint pain, fatigue, skin problems, and mood changes.

Food sensitivity can be difficult to diagnose, and the trigger food can vary from person to person. Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and leaky gut syndrome have been associated with food sensitivity.

Some people may be sensitive to certain foods due to a genetic predisposition, while others may develop a sensitivity due to changes in the gut microbiota. 

There are several tests available from healthcare providers to identify food sensitivity, including an elimination diet. This involves cutting out certain foods suspected of being triggers and then reintroducing them one at a time to see how the body responds. However, don’t just do any sort of self-testing without the advice of a doctor. A medical specialist can determine the best avenue for treatment and diagnosis.

Tracking symptoms in a journal can help you identify which foods may be causing issues for you.


Knowing the differences between food allergy, intolerance, and sensitivity can help you make informed choices about your diet and health. 

If you suspect that you have a food-related issue, it's important to seek medical advice to determine the cause and seek appropriate treatment.

If you have food intolerance or sensitivity, you can manage your symptoms by avoiding trigger foods and adopting a healthy, balanced diet. Don't let food-related issues stop you from enjoying life and living well.