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Food Allergy, Sensitivity Or Intolerance - Which Is It?

You may have turned to the Paleo diet as part of your solution to suspected food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances with either great or limited success. Understanding the differences between a food allergy, a sensitivity or an intolerance can better equip you to determine a specific food or food family could be the culprit for your continued low energy or fatigue, poor, sleep, uncomfortable gas, constipation, skin/hair/nail issues or generally not feeling optimal.

Since approximately 70-80% of your immune system can be found in the gut, there is a high possibility that a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance is, in fact, the reason you are not feeling  as good as you want to, even if you are following a Paleo diet and have removed many of the most common offenders. Once you can determine how a food is impacting you, you can implement strategies to overcome its ill effects

The Differences

Food Allergy

Food allergies are on the rise, especially in children. Today, around 1 in 13 children and 1 in 25 adults in North America suffer from a life-threatening food allergy.

A true food allergy involves the immune system. This reaction is commonly referred to as a Type I Immunoglobulin E (IgE) Hypersensitivity response. An allergic reaction occurs when your body mistakenly identifies a “safe” protein as a foreign invader and begins to attack the food item containing this element. Your body then releases an organic nitrogenous compound known as histamine as a way to defend against this protein. When histamine is released, your body may react by experiencing hives, coughing, vomiting or wheezing. Although most food allergies appear during early childhood, it is very much possible for an adult to suddenly experience this reaction.

Food allergies can be fatal, unlike a food intolerance or sensitivity. In extreme cases, ingesting or even touching a small amount of the allergen can cause a severe reaction.

Symptoms of food allergy include:

  • Skin reactions, like hives, swelling, and itching
  • Anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness, and death
  • Digestive symptoms, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea

Eight foods account for 90 percent of allergic reactions:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Peanuts and tree nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

There are also non-IGE mediated food allergies. These reactions occur when other parts of the immune system are activated.

The symptoms of non-IGE reactions are typically delayed, and occur primarily in the gastrointestinal tract. They include

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating

Less is known about this particular type of reaction, and in general this type of response is not life-threatening.

It is important to note that a food allergy will always occur shortly after consumption. Typically, the symptom(s) can be detected within minutes but for some individuals, it may take a few hours before the individual feels symptomatic. The reaction is typically severe in nature.

Food Sensitivity

A food sensitivity is often referred to as a delayed hypersensitivity response, meaning that the individual may not present with symptoms until several hours or even several days later.  The method of action of a food sensitivity within the immune system is separate from a food allergy. A food sensitivity includes immune responses other than a Type I Hypersensitivity response. The most common sensitivity reaction to foods includes Type 3 Immune Complex Mediated Hypersensitivity and Type 4 Cell-Mediated Hypersensitivity.

The term food sensitivity is often used interchangeably with food allergy even though they are completely different immune reactions. A food sensitivity is also very dose-dependent. Making detection more challenging than an allergy.

Food sensitivities are much more common than food allergies and typically occur as a result of a gastrointestinal system imbalance, most commonly referred to as intestinal hyper-permeability (commonly known as leaky gut). Intestinal hyper-permeability occurs when the lining of the gut has been disturbed by external factors. Processed foods, certain medications, pathogens, toxins, and stress are the biggest offenders. With continued exposure, the immune system struggles to carry the load, and begins to weaken or malfunction. Food particles that should be contained within the intestines begin slipping through the lining into the bloodstream. Your body realizes that the food should not be in your bloodstream and as a result, begins to attack the particles.

Conditions commonly exacerbated by food sensitivities include (but are not limited to) 

  • IBS
  • Migraine
  • Eczema
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Urticaria
  • Fibromyalgia

The most common symptoms of a food sensitivity include:

  • Headaches
  • Post-nasal drip or congestion and/or excess mucous production
  • Irritable bowel
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Reflux
  • Bladder issues
  • Acne or skin issues
  • Excessive sweating
  • Mood swings, anxiety and/or depression
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle or joint pain

Experiencing one of these reactions from time to time is nothing to worry about but if this is something you experience on a routine basis, you may want to strongly consider monitoring your diet, even if your foods are all Paleo compliant. It is amazing what you might be able to detect!

The most common food sensitives are

  • Corn
  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Egg
  • Soy

But there is no limit as to what an individual can react to. It is entirely possible to have this type of reaction to almost any food you consume.

Food Intolerance

A food intolerance is the least severe of the three possible reactions. Food intolerances are not IgE mediated and are thought to be caused by specific enzyme deficiencies, impaired food absorption, and other GI issues. In many cases, other immunoglobulin antibody responses may also be involved (IgA and IgG.

The signs and symptoms of a food intolerance are typically immediate and occur more quickly than a food sensitivity, but are not as severe as an allergic reaction.

The most common symptoms a food intolerance include

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • Respiratory problems
  • Brain fog
  • Skin reactions such as eczema.
  • Flushing
  • General discomfort
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms

If unmanaged, food intolerances can have serious health consequences increasing the risk of developing conditions including autoimmune disease and neurological disorders.

Common foods/food components known to trigger a food intolerance include

  • Gluten
  • FODMAPS
  • Histamines
  • Lactose
  • Lectins
  • Preservatives
  • Alcohol
  • Acidic foods and citrus fruits
  • Sulfites
  • Artificial fillers, flavorings, and colors

Pete’s Paleo Eat What You Love offers a variety of meals and choices supporting those with specific nutrition requirements, all chef prepared made with the best ingredients and ready when you are – no apron required.

Check out the selection here>>>>>

Overcoming a Food Intolerance

Food allergies are generally a lifelong affliction, although children sometimes can “outgrow” allergies to milk, egg, wheat, or soy. However, a gut healing protocol can often support overcoming a food intolerance or sensitivity.

Food intolerances and sensitivities often involve compromised gut health. In most cases, a food is simply not being digested properly and/or or food molecules are getting past the gut lining when they should not be able to.

A few suggestions to improve gut heath

  • Increase stomach acidusing supplementation. Stomach acid is needed for digestion. Although many people think they have too much stomach acid, they may in fact have too little.
  • Eat sauerkraut and other fermented foods and consider taking a probiotic supplement.
  • Eat fermentable fiber, as prebiotics can be even more effective than probiotics at improving microbiome integrity and diversity.
  • Drink bone broth. The gelatin, glycine, and glutamine in bone broth all have beneficial effects for the gut. Get yours here >>>>
  • Get tested and treated for SIBO or intestinal pathogens to re-establish a healthy gut flora.

Now that you know the difference between a food allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance you can take better control of your health. If you suspect an allergy, schedule an appointment with your local allergist. If you suspect a food intolerance or sensitivity, start to keep a food journal and track all symptoms and work on healing and restoring your gut health. The sooner you pinpoint the foods that may be causing your symptoms, the sooner you will be able to calm the inflammation in your body. Taking control of and calming inflammation leads to feeling your best, improved post-workout recovery, speedier healing when injured, and prevention chronic illness long term!


Michal Ofer is a wellness and digestion expert and nutrition coach. She is focused on assisting clients to take control of their health and happiness through the sustainable food and lifestyle choices that best support them. Through strengthening the body from the inside out, her clients are able to reach new heights of health, happiness and wellness. Michal obtained her Professional Training and Certificate from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She has a further studied through the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Stanford University and is a Certified 21 Day Sugar Detox Coach. Michal has also received a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a Master Life Coach Certification. For further information and to connect with Michal visit her website at www.michalofer.com

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