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by Emily Funcik

What is a food allergy?

The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) defines a food allergy as “an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food.” So basically, your immune system recognizes a particular food as a threat and reacts in a negative way consistently when it is exposed to that food. Food allergies have a very specific immune response: either IgE mediated or non-IgE mediated. Symptoms can present in a variety of ways that could include the skin, the intestine, the cardiovascular system, or the respiratory system. Some food allergies are life threatening. IgE mediated responses can happen within minutes of eating the offending food. Non-IgE mediated responses can take hours or days to show up. The 8 main food allergens are eggs, milk, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and wheat, but any food ingredient can be an allergen.

Are food allergies, food intolerance, and food sensitivities the same?

The short answer is no. Food intolerances and food sensitivities show up in similar ways to a true food allergy, but may not involve the immune system. While true food allergies develop when your immune system reacts to a protein in a food, food intolerance can occur when your body reacts to other components of a food. For instance, lactose intolerance occurs when the body cannot properly digest lactose, a sugar found in cow’s milk. Generally speaking, while food sensitivities and intolerances can be very uncomfortable, they are not life-threatening. Some individuals with food sensitivity only experience symptoms when consuming raw food, but can tolerate the offending food when cooked. Some with food sensitivities may be able to tolerate a small quantity of the food before having a reaction.

How do I know if I have a food allergy?

Food allergies can be tough to diagnose. Some allergic reactions are obvious, as in cases of anaphylaxis. (Think the guy reacting to the shrimp he ate in the movies…hives, trouble swallowing or breathing, etc) Some are much more subtle, as with skin reactions or reactions that involve the intestine. If you suspect that you have a food allergy, seek out the advice of a board certified allergist. It is likely that they will perform a prick skin test (PST) to begin to gauge your reaction to certain allergens. The allergist then may do blood work to further determine your body’s immune response to allergens. The “gold standard” for diagnosing a food allergy is an oral food challenge. During a food challenge, the allergist will have you bring the suspected allergen into his or her office with you and eat a small amount over time while you are in the office for observation.

I’ve been diagnosed, so now what?

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a food allergy, keep your head up. There are so many great allergy-friendly resources and foods out there. Avoidance of your food allergen is going to be key to keeping you healthy and safe. Focus on incorporating “whole” foods into your diet more than packaged or processed foods. This is a healthy rule for just about anyone, but will also limit the number of places your particular allergen can hide. Read food ingredient lists like crazy. Packaged foods that contain one of the 8 main allergens should include a “contains” statement, (i.e. CONTAINS: WHEAT) so start by looking for that. If you do not see a “contains” statement, check the ingredients anyway.

Take it seriously. Food allergies can be somewhat unpredictable. So what started as a minor reaction can escalate into something serious quickly. Get tested regularly, as well. Food allergies can develop unexpectedly to foods you have previously eaten with no trouble. Likewise it is possible to “outgrow” allergies. Testing with some regularity can help you keep your diet as liberal as possible.

Seek out the help of a registered dietitian for more information. I have a great bundle of sessions designed specifically for people newly diagnosed with a food allergy here. Let me know if I can help!

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