Decadent three-layer birthday cake. Your grandma’s homemade cookies. Tacos with extra guac (which is totally worth the extra dollar).
We can all agree that delicious food is one of the finest things in life. But sometimes, things take an unexpected turn for the worst.
Be it digestive upset, a skin rash, or another mysterious symptom, our bodies can show unpleasant reactions that we never saw coming. No one likes to admit that a certain food might be causing these things, but when the symptoms become a pattern, it usually begs one question:
“Do I have a food allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance?”
The short answer is... you might. Only testing will give you the answers you’re looking for. First and foremost, though, it’s important to learn the differences between food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances. Once you understand the basics about what you might be dealing with, you can make an educated decision about which healthcare provider to visit.
In this blog, we sat down with our Naturopathic Doctor, Dr. Saira Kassam, to learn more about the differences. It’s time to find out the answers you (and your body) have been looking for!
What is a food allergy?
Let’s start off by defining what a food allergy is. According to Dr. Kassam, one of the main factors with food allergies is that the body’s reaction is sudden. This is the same with any other allergy like a pet, environmental allergen, or dust.
“It’s known as an IgE reaction, and it happens in the immune system,” she explains. Essentially what happens is the immune system identifies a non-harmful substance (like peanut butter) as a potentially dangerous substance (even though it’s harmless). As a response, it creates immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies to help protect the body from said allergen. The result? Unpleasant symptoms that can range in their severity.
Food allergy symptoms
Symptoms of a mild food allergy can include:
- Skin rashes
- Congestion/runny nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Digestive issues (cramps, diarrhea)
On the flip side, people can also suffer from a severe food allergy which can be potentially life-threatening. This is known as anaphylaxis, and the most common symptoms include:
- Respiratory issues (I.e., wheezing, trouble breathing)
- Hives on the skin
- Swelling in the lips, tongue, and/or throat
- Nausea, vomiting, dizziness or fainting
We’re just scratching the surface, so here's a quick recap of the basics. The three things you should remember about food allergies are:
- The reaction is in the immune system (known as IgE).
- Symptoms will happen very quickly after the food is consumed.
- Symptoms can be mild or severe.
What is food sensitivity?
Now, let’s jump into what food sensitivity is. In comparison to a food allergy, when you have a sensitivity, your symptoms won’t appear right away. “It’s known as an IgG reaction,” Dr. Kassam explains, “And the reaction isn’t immediate. So maybe you eat something on Monday but you don’t feel anything until maybe Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday.”
The reaction to that food is still taking place in the immune system, but rather than creating IgE antibodies (which cause an immediate reaction) it creates immunoglobulin G antibodies (which cause a delayed response). Food sensitivities are often referred to as “delayed food allergies”.
Food sensitivity symptoms
The symptoms of food sensitivity can vary from person to person. Since they don’t happen right away, it can be tricky to pinpoint the cause. Some of the most common examples include:
- Digestive issues (bloating, gas, cramps)
- Skin issues (eczema, acne)
- Joint pain
- Weight issues
In all of these cases, symptoms are not life-threatening. This is one of the biggest differentiating factors between food allergies and food sensitivities. It’s true that the above symptoms can be unpleasant to deal with, but they aren't nearly as severe as they might be with an allergy.
Some people will go their entire life being sensitive to certain foods and not even know it, for example. In comparison, someone with a severe food allergy will need to carry epinephrine (think: an epi-pen) in case they accidentally come in contact with that allergen.
Here’s a quick recap on food sensitivities:
- The reaction is in the immune system (known as IgG)
- Symptoms will not happen right away, but usually a few days later.
- Symptoms are unpleasant but never life-threatening.
Before we dive into what testing for allergies and sensitivities can look like, there’s one more thing to define: food intolerances. If you’re getting confused, don’t worry – the differences are easy to remember! Here’s a quick description of the things you should know.
What is food intolerance?
Like we said, food allergies and sensitivities are reactions that happen in the immune system. Food intolerance, on the other hand, happens specifically in the digestive system.
The most common symptoms can include bloating, gas, nausea, diarrhea, and stomach pain. You’ll experience these things shortly after eating the food you’re intolerant to. Food intolerances happen when your digestive system isn’t able to properly digest said food. Two of the most common examples include gluten intolerance and lactose intolerance.
Just like with food sensitivity, the symptoms of food intolerance aren’t life-threatening. Most people will evaluate on their own if they want to remove that food partially or completely from their diet. (Have you ever met someone who claims they’re lactose intolerant but goes ahead and eats the cheese pizza anyway? It’s kind of like that. The choice is up to you.)
In all of these situations, a knowledgeable healthcare provider can help. Let’s take a look at how testing can help you identify if you’re dealing with an allergy or a sensitivity.
Food allergy test
If you think you have a food allergy, the best practitioner to visit is your family doctor. They’ll consider a number of factors like your family history with food allergies, your symptoms, and how long you’ve been experiencing them.
Next, if deemed appropriate, they’d refer you for a food allergy test. This is a blood test that measures the IgE antibodies in your system, therefore confirming (or denying) if you’re dealing with an allergy. At HealthOne, our medical team works closely with LifeLabs, one of the most trusted laboratory services in Canada. You’ll be given a requisition which allows you to get a food allergy test, then your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment to review your results.
In most cases, if your food allergy test comes back positive, your doctor will recommend that you remove that food from your diet. As an all-in-one clinic, our HealthOne team has both Medical Walk-In and Wellness services under one roof! If you find out you have a food allergy and think you’d benefit from additional nutritional support, you can always meet with our Dietitian to receive meal-planning assistance and guidance.
Food sensitivity test
If you think you’re dealing with sensitivity and not an allergy, the best practitioner to visit is a Naturopathic Doctor like Dr. Kassam. “I have people come in based on curiosity,” she says. “They want to know what they’re sensitive to because they know when they eat a certain food, they have certain symptoms like digestive issues or headaches.”
In certain cases, she’ll recommend that you do a food sensitivity test. The test we do at HealthOne is the RMT FSA igT Food Sensitivity Test by Rocky Mountain Analytical. It’s a panel that tests 222 different foods. Just like with a food allergy test, you’ll be given a requisition and can go to any LifeLabs location to have your blood test done. Once the results are in, you’ll meet again with your Naturopathic Doctor to go over the results and discuss the recommended next steps.
The results of a food sensitivity test will categorize foods under three colours:
- Red means you’re very sensitive.
- Yellow means you’re partially sensitive
- Green means you have no sensitivity.
After reviewing the results with you, your Naturopathic Doctor will come up with a plan to help you eliminate the red and yellow foods. Dr. Kassam typically recommends this to her patients for 2-3 months, then meets with them during a follow-up appointment to reassess their symptoms.
Naturopath food sensitivity testing
“The one big thing about food sensitivities I always say is that it’s not for everyone,” Dr. Kassam clarifies. “If you’re having digestive problems, you don’t necessarily need the food sensitivity test. For a lot of people, they’re dealing with chronic inflammation and if there’s too much inflammation in the gut, an FST doesn’t make sense because everything is going to come up.”
In this scenario, she’d recommend that you work on resolving the chronic inflammation before doing an FST so your results come back more accurately. “I always say let’s find the root cause because there might be more that’s happening than just a sensitivity,” she adds.
When you visit a Naturopathic Doctor, they’ll provide you with in-depth and comprehensive care. They’re passionate about learning about how all areas of your life – like your diet, stress levels, and even sleeping patterns – are contributing to the health problems you’re experiencing.
If you visit one because you’re dealing with any of the symptoms of an allergy or sensitivity, for example, testing will only be one part of the puzzle. They’ll also provide lifestyle recommendations to help treat the root cause of your issues.
“We don’t treat everyone the same and that’s the whole point of Naturopathic medicine,” Dr. Kassam explains. “It really revolves around individualized medicine and personal treatment. Lab work will vary from person to person, and so will health history and family history. These things play a big role in getting patients to feel their best.”
Allergies, Sensitivities, and Intolerances: Our Final Thoughts
At the end of the day, no one wants to be told they have an allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance. Food brings us together, nourishes our bodies, and gives us the energy to live inspired lives!
The reality, though, is that many people will develop at least one of these in their lifetime. And based on the severity of your symptoms, taking steps to eliminate that food partially (or completely) from your diet can be extremely beneficial.
The best thing you can do first and foremost is educate yourself! Understanding the differences can help you learn what you might be dealing with and narrow down which type of healthcare provider to visit. From there, a naturopathic doctor or medical doctor will evaluate your unique needs, refer you to the appropriate testing, and counsel you on how to manage your symptoms effectively.
We hope this blog has been informative and helped you on your journey to living a healthier life!
Click here to book a complimentary 15-minute consultation with Dr. Saira Kassam, our Naturopathic Doctor.
One Life. Live Inspired.