Have you ever had a bad reaction to something you ate? Maybe a glass of red wine makes you a little stuffy? Or, perhaps, you have had an even stronger response to something you consumed? You are not alone. Plenty of people suffer from food intolerance or a food allergy. Reports of food allergies and intolerance are becoming more and more common these days. It is important to be aware of them and what they mean to you.
There are significant differences between an allergy and an intolerance, though both can be irritating, sometimes life threatening conditions. A food intolerance usually affects the digestive system. If you have ever had a reaction to milk or dairy products, you might be a part of the 25% of Americans who suffer from lactose intolerance. Common symptoms of a food intolerance may include stomach and bowel related problems like nausea, vomiting, bloating or gas, diarrhea, and headaches. Other less-common food intolerances include fructose intolerance and gluten intolerance. If you experience GI discomfort routinely after eating certain foods, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist to be evaluated for a possible food intolerance.
A food allergy occurs when your body encounters an ingredient that elicits a systemic immune system reaction. The body reacts by releasing histamines, which can cause mild to severe reactions. These can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches, just as in a food intolerance, but they may also include, hives or a rash, shortness of breath, itchiness, or even anaphylaxis, a life threatening condition which is an extreme combination of the above symptoms.
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, common food allergies include fish and seafood, nuts, and eggs. Other often discussed food allergens are to wheat and soy products. Gluten is a protein that is found in common grains like wheat and is found in many baked goods like bread. Soy products are soybean based foods such as tofu, soy flour or soy protein isolate– a soy ingredient used widely in cereals, energy bars and protein drinks to boost their protein content.
You should seek testing for food allergies, if you suspect you have them. Your doctor or allergist can test you for specific allergies, as well as provide you with more information on the topic and help you find the best ways to deal with your condition; consulting with a registered dietitian who specializes in food allergies can also help you learn more about reading food labels and designing a safe diet that meets your nutritional needs. Once you have confirmed that you are allergic to a certain food, you must avoid it–as well as other foods that may have been contaminated by it–to ensure you do not experience an allergic reaction. You may consider wearing a health alert bracelet in the event that you do accidentally encounter the food. For people prone to anaphylactic reactions to their food allergens, doctors may also prescribe an emergency medication injector (called an “Epi Pen”) that you can use immediately if you are exposed to a problem food; if you have been prescribed an Epi Pen, it’s crucial that you know how to use it, and keep it with you at all times.
The Mayo Clinic suggests staying informed about food labels and ingredients so that you can avoid a bad reaction in the future. Pay attention to food labels. Packaged foods regulated by the FDA should list the most common allergens. However, it is more difficult to discern when foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and meats are not packaged. If you have particularly severe reactions to certain foods, you will want to make sure that what you are eating is not prepared in the same vicinity as what you are allergic to. You can also contact the manufacturer of a product, if you suspect it is causing a reaction for you.
For more detailed information about your specific food allergy, consult the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network’s website.