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Food Allergy or Intolerance?

Food Allergy or intolerance? 3 steps to telling the difference.

Everywhere you look these days there seems to be more and more ‘free’ foods. Dairy free, gluten free, egg free, nut free… So, it is any wonder that parents are considering food as the culprit if their child has developed unusual symptoms or behaviours. 

When considering food as a potential cause, it is important to first understand the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance.  

A food allergy is when your immune system has a strong overreaction to that food. The reaction can cause things like swelling in the face, lips and eyes, hives, tummy pain, vomiting and in some cases, it can lead to difficulty breathing and swelling of the throat.  In babies, other symptoms (but uncommon) include reflux, colic, diarrhoea and eczema 

A food intolerance on the other hand doesn’t involve the immune system so the symptoms tend to be a little different. Firstly, the reactions can take days to appear after repeatedly eating certain foods. This delay can make it very difficult to find what is causing it. It is a bit like how some people will experience side effects from a medication and others don’t.  To make things more confusing, the reactions can be similar to food allergies. 

So what do you do if you suspect a food allergy or intolerance:

  1. See your GP to rule out any medical or more sinister causes for the symptoms.
  2. Ask for a referral for allergy testing. This can be done through a skin prick test or RAST test (blood test). The skin prick test sounds painful but it isn’t and is an accurate way to test many allergens at once. 
  3. If the allergy test is negative then seek the advice of an experienced food intolerance dietitian on the best dietary strategies for your child to identify which foods may be to blame. 

There is no shortcut or hack unfortunately when it comes to diagnosing food intolerances. Even a blood test can’t find the answer. Any tests you see advertised that say they can, will give you what is known as ‘false positives’. It will tell you have food intolerances that don’t exist.  If there was a reliable test then allergy clinics run by medical doctors would offer them. But they don’t. 

Now that you have the facts, I have a final word of caution. Don’t eliminate foods or food groups randomly in the hope of finding the culprit. This scattergun approach can do more harm than good and you could be wasting a lot of precious time looking in the wrong places. Unfortunately, we see this all too much in our clinic and it makes me so sad to see mums and dads at the end of their tether and children becoming more and more cautious and confused about food. The knowledge and experience of the right health professional can get you get to an answer quicker and with less disruption to family mealtimes,  and as a parent, that’s gold dust!

Written by: Anna D’Arcy, Accredited Practising Dietitian at My Nutrition Clinic. Anna is a mum to two children under 10 years and has 20 years of experience working as a dietitian and helping families reach their health potential.