Understanding Food Allergies & Food Intolerances
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food, right? Well, not always. If you have food allergies or even intolerances, some foods can take a toll on your body and mind.
When my readers speak (or write), I listen. Many of you are experiencing physical and mental snafus on a daily basis. These issues can add up and seriously impact your overall well-being and enjoyment of life. Fatigue, brain fog, constipation, rashes, gas and bloating are just a few of the troubles I come across in reader comments and emails each day.
There are many potential roots behind these discomforts, but one of the easiest ones to identify is your food. That’s where I started when my energy began to drop and pesky health bummers crept up. As always, I put on my detective hat and consulted with my integrative MD. One simple blood test revealed that I have a few food intolerances. Lucky for me, I don’t have food allergies.
So how do you spot a food intolerance or allergy? And most importantly, how do you create an even better diet and lifestyle without those trouble foods? That’s why we’re here today, my friends. Let’s dive in…
What’s the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?
Food Allergy: A food allergy develops when your immune system mistakenly identifies a specific protein as a threat and sends a swat team of white blood cells to attack it. When the protein enters the digestive system, an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) is produced and the allergic response occurs.
Reactions to food allergens range from mild to severe and may affect your skin (hives, tingling mouth, swelling of the lips, tongue, face or throat), digestive tract (nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea) or the respiratory system (including a possible dangerous drop in blood pressure). Severe cases can involve a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which requires immediate treatment.
The most common food allergens are cow’s milk (the protein in milk, not the lactose), tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, filberts/hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts), peanuts, eggs, seafood, shellfish, soy and wheat — often called the “Big Eight.”
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Food Intolerance: Most food reactions are actually caused by food intolerances rather than true allergies. Unlike an allergy, food intolerances do not involve a hasty immune reaction, so you may be able to eat these foods in small amounts without much trouble. Just keep in mind that although food intolerances are generally less serious, they could still cause digestive upset, joint pain, migraines, eczema, sinusitis and many other discomforts.
The most common food intolerance is a reaction to lactose in cow’s milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, your digestive system lacks the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for breaking down the milk sugar, lactose. This can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea when you consume milk products, but since the immune system isn’t involved, it’s not a true food allergy.
Other common food intolerances include gluten (found in wheat, oats, barley and rye), eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, chili peppers, chili powder, paprika and goji berries), alcohol and foods high in fructose such as high-fructose corn syrup, raisins, honey, agave nectar, mango, apples, pears and watermelon.
How do I test for a food allergy?
If you suspect that you have a food allergy, your doc can do a skin prick test or a blood test.
Skin prick: A tiny amount of the suspected food is placed on your arm or back and then your skin is pricked to let a small amount of the food below the surface of your skin. If you’re allergic, you’ll likely develop a raised bump on your skin.
Blood test: A sample of your blood is sent to the lab where different foods can be tested with your blood sample and the levels of IgE antibodies can be measured after each exposure. Check out Genova Diagnostics for a complete food allergies test.
Neither the skin test nor the blood test for allergens are 100 percent accurate, so your doc may use family history and description of your symptoms as a final determination of whether or not you have a food allergy.
How do I test for a food intolerance?
If your symptoms point to food intolerances or sensitivities, an elimination diet is often used to determine whether or not certain foods are trouble foods. Suspect foods are eliminated for 14-21 days and then added back in one at a time. Do not use this approach with true allergens, since you run the risk of experiencing a life-threatening reaction when the suspect food is added back in.
If the elimination diet doesn’t provide clear-cut food intolerance answers, a hydrogen breath test can be done to determine lactose intolerance or fructose malabsorption. The same test is done to diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a non-invasive test done in a clinic setting after fasting for 12 hours.
ALCAT food intolerance testing is also available and measures intolerances to 350 foods, herbs and chemicals listing items as red (serious reaction/avoid for 6 months), orange (moderate reaction), yellow (mild tolerance) or green (no reaction). The downside is that this testing is pricey and often shows many false positives for food intolerances. For these reasons, most health professionals do not recommend this testing for food intolerances.
As I mentioned earlier, I found out about my food intolerances with a blood test. You can learn more about some of your testing options at the Genova Diagnostics website.
What are some helpful alternatives to common allergens?
Tree Nuts and Peanuts: Sesame seeds are common and potential allergens, but sunflower and pumpkin seeds very rarely cause an allergic reaction. Sunflower seed butter and pumpkin seeds are nutritious alternatives.
Cow’s Milk and Soy: There are a wealth of nondairy and soy-free alternatives made from almond, rice, oats, flax, hemp and coconut on the market now.
Eggs: Flax seeds and chia seeds can be used in place of eggs in baking. Commercial egg replacers, such as Ener-gee brand, are also available.
Wheat: Rice crackers and pasta, quinoa pasta and gluten-free breads are more and more readily available today.
Seafood and Shellfish: Many plant-based whole foods provide all the necessary protein building blocks without the allergen response. Beans, lentils, seeds and several vegetables are loaded with protein.
Take an inventory. Could certain foods be linked to the health struggles in your life? It might be worth a peek under the hood with your doc and some strategizing in the kitchen. And don’t worry about what you might have to give up. Once you’ve identified your trouble foods, you can create a delicious allergen-free or intolerance-free life. Who knows! You might even discover that your new and improved diet is even more satisfying and mouth-watering than your old one.
Your turn: How have you handled food allergies or intolerances?
Peace & tasty alternatives,
Oh yes, I have several food intolerance which is what got me started on my adventure of AlmostRawVegan.com several years ago. For me the sensitivities caused great havoc in my life, sadly there are many of us, luckily it can get better! As always your words are so helpful… can’t wait to share! xox Catherine
Food allergies started me down the plant-based and gluten- free path. Starting with my son, who was about 2 years old at the time, a specialist wanted to remove his tonsils, adenoids and put tubes in his ears. I knew in my heart there was a better way.
Sought out a naturopath, who suggested testing. He was allergic to many of the big 8 items including; dairy, soy, eggs, and a few other things. Removing his trigger foods helped him avoid an unnecessary surgery.
I did the testing as well and found out many of the foods I was eating every day were actually causing inflammation. Wheat was also included in my list of allergens, among peanuts, walnuts, cashews, garlic…things I never would have known I was sensitive to unless I did the test. (I always wondered why I got a slightly scratchy throat when eating these things!)
This is one of the main reasons I started blogging and sharing gluten-free, vegan recipes. I use simple, everyday ingredients and keep food simple and tasty.
This is great! Thanks, Kris.
I really, really struggle with food intolerances, I think. I have acid reflux and IBS, and it seems like the smallest thing will set me off. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’m intolerant to seafood. I can eat some here and there, but if I eat too much at once or even in the span of a week, I’ll have issues. I’d love to get tested or do an elimination diet, but I would really like to be led/supported by someone who could coach and guide me through it easily! Doesn’t seem like something I could or would want to take on by myself. Anyone have success with testing themselves, either by yourself or with professional help, for intolerance?
You’re on the right track with wanting support going through an elimination diet. This is what I specialize in and the test I use shows me which foods of all of the non-reactive ones are the lowest of each food group. So you start with the least reactive proteins, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc and then work through the first 6 phases of the elimination diet by adding in one food per day. I usually have to make some changes with my clients week to week as they move through this and make changes based on what food chemicals show up reactive. The results are in the process for sure and since elimination diets aren’t necessarily easy it’s nice to have support so you can do it once and to the best ability!
I’m definitely ready to get tested for food intolerance or allergies. I’m going to try this testing with a chiropractor (believe it or not!) who does muscle testing. Can’t wait to see what I learn!
I found great insights with kinesiology for food sensitivities (NAET technique was what we used) for my son. It was in fact life changing – helped us out of his awful digestive problems and moods. Best of luck Caroline!
Kris, I found out about five years ago that I am allergic to all meat and corn. I am still learning how to incorporate other foods into my daily schedule. I don’t mind being a vegetarian because since childhood I never rely cared for meat. However, a lot of vegetarian dishes include corn. Luckily, I am not allergic to seafood! I have eosinophilic esophagitis…so when I would eat meat, it often got stuck in the middle of my esophagus and I would need to take a trip to the ER. I was 21 when I had my first choking incident. They didn’t figure this all out until I was 37.
Thank you for this article it was interesting to read the differences between intolerance and allergies.
I’ve seen the choking occur in several family members- scary. So good you know what it is and are taking steps to change your diet- go you!
My sister used to suffer from Eosiniphilic Esophagitis too, she worked through her food sensitivities with me (I’m a registered dietitian) and use the Leap MRT protocol and luckily has no issues now and can eat her formerly reactive foods. It’s crazy to see all the healthy whole foods that can cause inflammation in people when the digestive system needs support.
I am probably allergic to peanuts because my lips and throat swell when I eat peanut butter. In spite of this, I eat peanut butter every day because it is fast and easy and I love it. Could the peanut butter be contributing to my joint aches and pains?
Thanks for your recommendation to substitute sunflower or pumpkin seed butter.
Thanks for talking about this Kris, so important. It took me years to figure out I had an intolerance for alliums (garlic, onlons, and related plants). Heartburn was my first clue, so I urge folks to pay attention to that.
For anyone who has the same problem, if you are having trouble replacing the flavors, I recommend _Lord Krishna’s Cuisine_, a great vegetarian cookbook with no garlic or onions (in their case, for religious reasons). Curry allows for complex flavors and for once you won’t miss the garlic.
Raw alliums in some people can cause the pyloric valve, the muscle that lets food pass from the stomach to the small intestine, to open and close erratically. I’ve heard from many people that eating chlorophyll at the same time solves the problem. Alliums have so many cancer fighting properties; maybe it’s worth a try.
http://zesterdaily.com/cooking/cancer-fighting-effects-of-onions-garlic/ (touted in Saturday’s NY Times)
Yay! so glad to see this post from you! Food intolerances have affected me since infancy. I have an auto immune disorder and I found that when I eliminated the foods that bothered me, my symptoms got less severe. My list is pretty extensive: dairy, eggs, gluten, a few grains, nightshade veggies, citrus fruits. This whole thing prompted me to study to become a holistic health practitioner in my early 20’s. I focused on nutrition, herbology, aromatherapy and Ayurvedic therapies. I learned so much about how to balance my pH and support my immune system. I think of it like this: our bodies have a maximum load (how much imbalance it can handle before it says hey! No more!) and everyone’s is different. Finding ways to lighten your load can make your body function so much more efficiently (and make you feel better as a result) For me avoiding my food intollerances and staying away from chemical exposure as much as i can is the way I lighten my load. Thanks so much for all you do to help other people realize the things they can do to live a healthier and happier (and sexier!) life. <3
Hi Anne, how did you identify your food sensitivities? I’ve had blood testing done, but it was awhile back, and I think I may have developed some new sensitivities. Like you, I’ve had multiple intolerances identified, and it’s hard to tell, even after an elimination diet, which foods are really critical to avoid, and which ones aren’t as problematic.
Very good article. Just a tiny question – you said your food intolerances were revealed by doing a simple blood test. But then in the bit about testing for food intolerances, no mention of a blood test! Details about the one you took would be most helpful, thank you!
Thanks for your comment. Kris did the ELISA test. You can learn more about it here: http://www.gdx.net/product/10145
Creative Director @ KrisCarr.com
I clicked on the link above and called Genova diagnostics to see about having my doctor order the test kit for me. They said the test is not available to NY residents. I thought Kris lived in NY and she said she had this test done. Is there a way around the NY residency thing? Any info you can give me would be very helpful as I’d love to have this test done. I wasted a bunch of money already on the useless ALCAT test.
You can get the same test here. http://www.elisaact.com/ My doctor recommended it to me and I’ve read good things about it. 🙂 I think I’m going to get the test soon.
Great post, thank you Kris. Do you know anything about salycylates allergy?
Could you talk more about using flax seeds to replace eggs in baking?
Ground flax seeds can be used successfully in backing. Ratio is 1 tablespoon ground flax seed to 2-3 tablespoons water, (I use 3 Tbs. water) This amount equals 1 egg, and can be increased according to need of recipe.
Simmer mixture in saucepan about 5 mins. until you get an egg like consistency. Cool (about 10 min.) then use as need. A 1/4 cup of this mixture or 4 tbs. equals 1 egg. This works wonderfully in all breads, muffins, pancakes, cakes and pastries, except hard cookies, like sugar cookies. If you make larger batches, like I do , 1 cup ground flax seeds to 3 cups water, it will keep in fridge approximately 10 – 14 days.
Hope this helped…enjoy baking/cooking.
Forgot to state the 1 cup flax to 3 cups water ratio equals 16 eggs…. I do lots of breads!
Thanks for this valuable info on flax meal egg replacement! Very useful! Also, the same may be done with Chia Seeds. if they are not ground from the package, you can grind them yourself and follow your flax recipe!
I understand that one of the reasons that eggs can cause problems for many people is the binding nature of eggs (causes digestive problems). This is why they are used in baking. So, do flax seeds have this same nature and can potentially cause they same problems?
I have an egg intolerance and have been able to sub flax/chia seed gel with ease! Although, I am not sure which part of the egg I am intolerant to, maybe not the binding property, but the protein?
Lecithin is the binding agent in eggs….there is none in Flax seeds which are a pseudo grain/seed.
I am definitely going to try the flax seed alternative.
Thanks for the explanation.
I do the seed/water egg-replacer quite successfully without needing to cook it at all … just a little patience and let it sit (minutes, not hours, lol) until it becomes a gelatinous consistency and you’re good-to-go! 🙂 With flax seeds, you just have to make sure that you grind them before and use a tablespoon of *ground* (NOT whole) flax seeds.
You can also use chia seeds in the same ratios just as successfully and you do NOT need to grind them. You DO use chia seeds whole.
I would love to hear more about fructose malabsorbtion and sugar sensitivity! Thanks Kris and commenters for sharing so widely!
I love your blog and recipes. I love your sense of humor with the articles. I have been reading it for over a year. A dear friend if mine started me on it who also has bad food sensitivities. This article hits right at home as I am finally eliminating gluten from my diet for all the above reasons. I am feeling better but feel I have to now watch dairy products.
I feel better but know I can take it even further. As a child I was allergic to dairy, wheat, and tomatoes, watermelon, egg plant, avocados, bananas.. I took allergy shots for years and years and was able to add back in. I am fifty years old now and guess my body is resisting it again and has been for years. So here I go!
Thanks for being a great inspiration!
Cheers to you today!
I was just tested for food/chemical sensitivities through ALCAT two weeks ago. While some of the sensitivity results were not surprising (cow’s milk, wheat/gluten, yeast, soy, sugar), others were quite shocking (avocado, broccoli, cabbage, garlic, potatoes, coconut, cocoa, and 50 more). Prior to the test, I was living a nightmare: insomnia, no libido, brain fog, lethargy, joint/muscle pain, hives/rashes, severe acne. I experienced these symptoms for more than 6 years, all the while being tested (and “medicated”) for a multitude of ailments from a variety of doctors. No of them even considered food allergies/sensitivities. A few friends suggested I get tested for food intolerances and that was the magic ticket. I have been on a pretty strict rotation diet for the past 3 weeks (eating the foods that I can eat), and I have seen a remarkable change in my overall well being. My ALCAT nutritional advisor has been so helpful, giving me support and recipes that I will utilize for the next 6 months wile I “detox” and allow the inflammation in my body to subside. The test was not cheap but the results have been definitely worth the brief financial setback!
Good for you! It’s amazing to me how doctors would rather medicate and essentially mask an issue instead of turning to food. It seems like a no-Brainer to me that what you put into your body could be causing the problem! We all accept (with very few exceptions, like medication side effects and thyroid problems) that what you eat can make you fat, but it’s not equally accepted that what you eat can make you sick!
It’s funny… I am allergic to gluten, one daughter is allergic to dairy (which we recently found out includes everything from a cow) and does better without gluten, and my son is allergic to shellfish. Ironically, I get a lot of sympathy from friends and family, but omg, what a blessing! Six years ago I was afraid of the kitchen, and now making food is what I am happiest doing. In a sense, I feel less restricted than before all the allergies and sensitivities!
Kris, I too am curious about what tests you got from the lab you reference. I don’t feel like I have been able to find any medical support for my daughters stomach issues. Thanks for a great post!
I had long known I am lactose intolerant. I found out I am also unable to tolerate soy when I nursing my infant daughter who was born allergic to dairy, egg, and soy. For the first time in my life I had eliminated these foods and subsequently also had NO stomach pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea or GERD! My father and brother discovered that they too cannot tolerate dairy or soy…until then we all thought those symptoms were NORMAL! LOL…when you are surrounded by people who have lived with and learned to deal with those issues, you don’t know any different:). My husband is also at least lactose intolerant, and I suspect has additional food issues, but he won’t eliminate them; his whole family (except for one sister whose son has Celiac) thinks their IBS symptoms, migraines and skin rashes are “normal”…sigh. On another note, I strongly believe that unless we choose to produce “wheat alternative”/gluten free grains organically and minimally processed, we will become intolerant and allergic to these foods. They will go the way of soy and corn unless we remove toxins from the planting and growing and shipping processes. The US has the knowledge and the power to provide local, fresh, safe, minimally processed, organic, humanely raised foods. We can decrease the need for huge volumes of fossil fuels and decrease our reliance on unsafe, unkind, mass food production practices. We could take back our power from the giant food conglomerates and fossil fuel corporations. If we decrease our reliance on these big guys, we impact their wallets and their ability to own OUR politicians and we can impact public policy in OUR favor. Goodbye Red Dye!…etc
My understanding has always been that blood testing for food intolerances has no basis in science. I believe these tests measure IgG, which was theorized to have a role in food intolerances, but was poorly correlated in research studies.
Thanks Kris for the great post! I greatly enjoy reading your newsletters and zest for life and wellness!
I dove into the world of food intolerances (no allergies here) a couple years ago after my digestive system went out of whack. Through lots of doctor appointments & their tests and searching in peer-reviewed scientific literature, I have a good grasp how and what changed in my digestion. Clinically, I was labeled with PI-IBS and SIBO. I believe my gut flora became way wonky after traveling abroad/stomach illness/antibiotic round(s) that I developed these issues a few months later and continue today (these instances are becoming well-documented in the scientific literature). Pub-Med has free access, I think, to the scientific literature for those interested- just search for IBS or PI-IBS, etc. for example.
For those with similar IBS issues & food intolerances, I have found understanding FODMAPs to be extremely helpful in identifying aggravating foods (those aha! moments!). Research from Australia has shed a lot of light and understanding on these certain food groups that may be more troublesome for those with gut rumblings. Check in out here: http://shepherdworks.com.au/disease-information/low-fodmap-diet. Or one of their papers: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/716634
I also like this site to check out nutrient content of foods and, in particular, fructose amount- http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/science/monitoringnutrients/nutrientables/nuttab/Pages/default.aspx
(sorry for the long post but it’s a subject near and dear to my heart now!)
Great info Sarah! Thanks!
This is a good article on the problems with IgG testing: http://www.tldp.com/issue/174/IgG%20Food%20Allergy.html
First, I was diagnosed with Celiac. As if that weren’t enough, I was then told that I had 15+ food intolerances. At first, it was just depressing and frustrating. But as it lead my down a path of food-awareness and better health, I started to master it. It took a while, as I had no help from anyone along the way (especially my doctor), but now I feel so much better and am able to help others with similar ailments!
I just received my BA in Health Science and am now a Food Coach for people who want help “Befriending their Food”. 🙂 It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever set out to do, and I’m so grateful I have the opportunity to do it!
Hi Jamianne, Did you find out about your 15+ intolerances with the Elisa test?
Another article on the problems with IgG testing: http://www.allassoc.com/problems-with-igg-food-allergy-testing/
Sorry for the repeat posts, but IgG testing for food intolerances is a major pet peeve of mine, especially since I have yet to see a blood sample that doesn’t light that panel up like a Christmas tree. I think it makes people’s diets prohibitively hard and with no factual basis. My family has several IgE mediated allergies and I have biopsy-proven celiac disease; we obviously MUST avoid those foods. But in terms of food sensitivities/intolerances, I think an elimination diet is by far the way to go.
Jess – Do you know of any good resources for undertaking an elimination diet? I tried one once, and it was so restrictive (started off with ~12 foods, adding 1 back at a time every few days) that after a couple of months, I eventually fell off the wagon. (Without learning much about my sensitivities from the experience, unfortunately!)
Hi there! This is Jennifer from Team Crazy Sexy. Kris wrote a great article on elimination diets that could be really helpful: https://kriscarr.com/blog/ask-kris-elimination-diet-plan/. Have a great day!