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

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Oregon Clinic

These are common questions when identifying a culprit for ongoing digestive symptoms. All these conditions can cause reactions in the digestive system like abdominal pain, bloating, or diarrhea, so it is understandably confusing to know what you’re dealing with. Additionally, these terms get thrown around loosely and are sometimes used interchangeably. Ultimately, food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances are distinct conditions that have different dietary treatments.

Food Allergy

  • Affects about 4% of adults, according to the CDC
  • Allergies can develop at any age and to foods you have eaten before
  • Common symptoms: hives, swelling of throat, lips, or tongue, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Severe symptoms can lead to anaphylaxis (a severe, whole-body allergic reaction)

Food Sensitivity

  • Reactions can be delayed, but there is no risk for anaphylaxis
  • Can worsen inflammation in the body
  • Common symptoms: digestive issues, fatigue, headaches, skin rashes like eczema or dermatitis

Food Intolerance

  • Reactions occur exclusively within the digestive system
  • Often caused by enzyme deficiencies or reactions to natural components or additives in food
  • Small amounts of the food may be tolerated
  • Intolerance may be temporary 
  • Food intolerances are much more common than food allergies.  
  • Common symptoms: heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation

Is there a test for it?

Testing can be done for food allergies and sensitivities to help identify which foods may be causing symptoms, although these tests are costly and not always accurate. If you have a diagnosed or suspected allergy, you should avoid that food completely. 
An alternative and cheaper way to test for food sensitivity or intolerance is an elimination diet. An elimination diet means removing certain foods from your diet for a period then reintroduce them while monitoring symptoms. 
If you are struggling to identify which foods are a problem for you, consider working with a qualified healthcare specialist who can safely help you through the process. At The Oregon Clinic, our dietitians are passionate about educating patients to eat to feel good and restore their digestive health.