Understanding the nuances between food allergies and food sensitivities is crucial for your well-being. While these both involve reactions to foods, they refer to distinct physiological responses to food. In this blog post, we'll explore the differences between food allergies and food sensitivities and delve into how you can effectively be evaluated for both.
What's a food allergy?
Food allergies are immune system responses to specific proteins found in certain foods. The body perceives these proteins as threats, produces specific IgE antibodies against the allergen, and releases chemicals such as histamine within minutes to hours of exposure. Symptoms typically resolve within 24 hours or less.
Symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to severe and may include hives, itching, swelling, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, and even anaphylaxis in extreme cases. Common allergens include peanut, tree nut, shellfish, dairy, and eggs.
Food allergy tests
If you think you have a food allergy, a food allergy test alone won’t tell you everything you need to know. Your symptom history is just as important, which is why it’s crucial to consult with your primary care physician or an allergist. They may recommend a variety of food allergy tests, including skin prick tests, blood tests, or oral food challenges.
Skin Prick Test:
This test involves placing a small amount of the suspected allergen on the skin, typically on the forearm or back. A tiny device causes a small scratch in the skin, allowing the allergen to enter. If local swelling and redness develop, it may indicate an allergy.
Blood tests, like an IgE blood test, measure the levels of antibodies produced in response to specific allergens. Elevated levels of these antibodies may suggest an allergy to certain foods. Component testing is another type of blood test that checks IgE antibodies to more specific food protein components. This is useful in identifying the risk of having a true food allergy.
Oral Food Challenge:
The gold standard in diagnostic testing of food allergies. This is a medical procedure where a food is eaten in small incremental amounts under medical supervision to assess for the development of symptoms. This will help to diagnose or rule out a food allergy.
If you live in the Tri-Sate Area, you can book an appointment at our allergy clinic in NYC. We offer same-day results.
What’s a food sensitivity?
Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are more subtle and often result in delayed reactions. Unlike allergies, sensitivities don't involve the immune system or anaphylaxis; instead, they are associated with the digestive system's difficulty in processing certain foods. Symptoms may include bloating, headaches, fatigue, and joint pain.
Identifying food sensitivities can be challenging due to the delayed nature of the symptoms and lack of validated testing. However, several methods can help pinpoint problematic foods.
Food sensitivity testing
This method involves systematically removing potential trigger foods from the diet and monitoring for symptom relief. After a period of elimination, individual foods are reintroduced to identify the specific culprit food(s). Keeping a detailed food diary during this process helps identify patterns of symptoms.
Unproven and non-standardized tests
Below is a list of controversial food allergy tests. From a medical standpoint, we do not recommend diagnosing a food allergy or sensitivity with one of these tests. However, it’s important to be aware that they exist when scoping out your options:
- IgG/IgG4 testing: This test measures the immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies your body produces in response to specific foods.
- Applied kinesiology: Also known as “muscle therapy,” this test puts a suspected food in one hand and measures the resistance to it in the opposite arm.
- Cytotoxicity testing: This test assesses changes in physical white cell growth under a microscope after food exposure.
- Electrodermal (Vega) testing: This test allegedly measures the body’s energy levels. If you’re allergic to a certain food, energy levels are meant to decrease when you consume it.
- Hair analysis: Your hair’s mineral content is examined to determine a food allergy.
- Pulse testing: Your pulse is taken before eating the suspected food and then 15 minutes afterward. The test claims that an increase of ten beats per minute indicates a food intolerance.
Distinguishing between food allergies and sensitivities is essential for effectively managing your health. While allergies involve the immune system and can elicit immediate, severe reactions, sensitivities manifest more subtly and with delayed symptoms. A detailed history is a key part of the diagnosis process as diagnostic procedures will differ based on whether you have a food allergy or food sensitivity. Testing may include skin prick tests, blood antibody tests, oral food challenges, or elimination diets to identify these specific triggers.
When considering a food allergy test or food sensitivity test, consult with a healthcare professional. Your symptom history helps them determine what testing is appropriate. They will guide you through identifying your triggers and help you make informed dietary choices.
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