What’s the Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Sensitivity?

Food allergy

November 17, 2020

By Gretchen Lidicker

When we hear the words “food allergy,” our minds quickly jump to life-threatening allergies that require immediate medical attention. We think of epi pens, swollen lips, and a trip to the ER. When we hear the words “food sensitivity,” many of us are less clear on what exactly that means. An upset stomach? A headache?

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, the truth is, they are very different and shouldn’t be confused. Keep reading for what you need to know about each.

What Is a Food Allergy?

“A food allergy is a true allergy that triggers an immediate immune response in the body,” says Nick Bitz, naturopathic doctor and chief scientific officer at Youtheory®. “A classic example would be a peanut allergy that causes anaphylaxis.”

According to Mayo Clinic, a food allergy may cause:

  • Tingling or itching in the mouth
  • Hives, itching or eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting

If you have a food allergy, there’s a good chance you’re already aware of it. If you’re not sure, your doctor has a few tools for diagnosing a food allergy. A skin prick test exposes your skin to a small amount of the suspected food. A blood test measures your immune system’s response to particular foods. And an oral food challenge is where you eat a little amount of the food under your doctor’s supervision.

Unfortunately, a food allergy usually means that you’ll have to avoid that food for life. Over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines may help reduce symptoms for milder allergies. For more severe allergies, you’ll need an emergency injection of epinephrine.

What Is a Food Sensitivity?

“A food sensitivity is a much more mild reaction and is often delayed in its manifestation,” says Bitz. According to him, some of the common signs and symptoms of a food sensitivity include an itchy mouth, indigestion, increased heart rate, skin rash, or nasal congestion. “But a sensitivity can present in a thousand different ways,” he continues. According to Will Cole, functional medicine expert and author of the best-selling book Ketotarian, a food sensitivity can manifest as anything from headaches, bloating, or fatigue to joint pain, mood swings, or anxiety.

Because the symptoms of a food sensitivity can be delayed or vague, a firm diagnosis is elusive. “Right now there’s no single blood test that can identify a food sensitivity,” says Bitz. “The only way to uncover your unique sensitivities is through an elimination diet challenge,” which involves removing a long list of common problem foods for at least a month and then adding them back in, one by one.

On the plus side, it’s possible that, with the right lifestyle changes, you can get back to enjoying your favorite foods. That’s because food sensitivities are often a symptoms of leaky gut or underlying microbiome imbalances, Will Cole recommends adding bone broth, which contains gut-healing proteins, and probiotics, which can help correct gut microbiome imbalances. He also recommends intermittent fasting, which gives your digestion a rest, and eating cooked foods, which decreases general stress on your digestive system.