You're done with your restaurant meal and it's time to the pay the bill. But before you even reach for your wallet, you get an itchy feeling down your back. Can't be food allergies, you think. Don't they go away when you become an adult?
There's a lot of confusion out there about eating and allergies. Learn how to separate truth from fiction so you can sit down to the dinner table with confidence.
By Dr. Amy Wechsler
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Myth No. 1: Food allergy is the same as "intolerance" or "sensitivity."
There are similarities, for sure. Allergy, intolerance, and sensitivity are a little bit like siblings. They all belong to the same "family" of bad reactions to food. But there are big differences.
An allergy happens when the immune system, your body's defense against germs, has a reaction to a particular food. It can be mild, like an itchy feeling or hives. Sometimes you get severe symptoms -- called anaphylaxis -- like trouble breathing, a swollen tongue, or dizziness. Food intolerance means your body is missing an enzyme you need to digest some type of food. If you're lactose intolerant, for instance, you don't have enough lactase, an enzyme that lets you digest dairy products. If you're gluten intolerant, you can't process gluten, which is found in some grains including wheat, barley, and rye.
What happens if you eat something you're "intolerant" to? You might get some of the same symptoms as a food allergy, but it can't trigger anaphylaxis. Over time, however, this reaction can damage the lining of your small intestine and can keep you from absorbing the nutrients you need from your food. Food sensitivity is different. It is something of a catch-all category for an unpleasant, though not serious, reaction from a food. Think headaches from having too much chocolate or acid reflux triggered by spicy foods.
"Food sensitivities are certainly an inconvenience, and they make you feel lousy, but they're not life-threatening," says allergist Marc McMorris, MD, medical director of the University of Michigan Food Allergy Clinic.
What allergy, intolerance, and sensitivity do have in common is how you prevent them. Your best strategy: stay away! Avoid any food that's got the problem ingredient in it.