It seems I have quite a few friends with food allergies, food intolerances and sensitivities these days. I just finished an article for Midsouth Latino magazine on the subject and learned quite a bit. To my great sorrow, I suffer from an allergy to shellfish. I didn't develop this allergy until I was an adult and it is getting worse. It started out with just shrimp but has progressed to scallops and now I've been warned not to eat other shellfish as well. Of course, I love shellfish, not to mention it is worrisome that I could have an anaphylactic reaction someday. (See my recent article on jonesboro.com on anaphylaxis.)
Let's sum up the difference between food allergies and food intolerances. A food allergy is an abnormal response to food triggered by the immune system. Food intolerance is a digestive system response to the inability to digest certain foods such as dairy. Food allergies can be life threatening but an intolerance just makes you feel miserable. Eating even the smallest amount of the troublesome food can set off an allergic reaction but those with food intolerances can often eat certain quantities of the food before having a problem. It is important to know the difference between the two in order to treat the problem properly. If you have a food allergy, it is important to avoid the food all together. You must also avoid the particular food with a food intolerance unless you are willing to put up with the symptoms.
The symptoms for a food allergy start within a few minutes to an hour of eating and include: itching around the mouth, difficulty swallowing or breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, hives, asthma, dizziness or anaphylaxis. Symptoms for a food intolerance include nausea, stomach pain, gas or bloating, vomiting, diarrhea and headaches. You can treat the symptoms for a food intolerance with over the counter products but with a food allergy, you may need to take an antihistamine if you accidentally eat the food or use an EpiPen and get immediate medical help if the symptoms are severe. Always carry an EpiPen if you've previously had an anaphylactic response.
Celiac disease is a serious genetic disorder in which people are unable to eat gluten which is found in wheat and other grains. Gluten causes an autoimmune reaction and the body produces antibodies that harm the small intestine, preventing absorption of nutrients. Celiac disease can be life threatening if not treated. The only treatment is to eliminate gluten from the diet. Symptoms include: diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, chronic fatigue and malnutrition. Others may experience some of these symptoms but not intestinal damage when they only have a gluten sensitivity or allergy.
Food allergies and food intolerances are on the rise in this country though scientists aren't exactly sure why. In developing countries where hygiene may be poor, people die from infectious diseases but health problems such as obesity, asthma and allergies are seldom seen. So early and more frequent exposure to bacteria may actually protect the body against certain health problems. Also, people in developing countries eat a mostly vegetarian diet that is locally grown which may further protect them from allergies. It may be that our high fat, high sugar, low fiber diet may be playing a role in allergies as well as diabetes and heart disease.
Food intolerances present complex issues, among them the question "What can I eat?". It isn't always easy to eliminate a food group from your diet. For instance, dairy and gluten are found in many products that seem harmless. Thursday I'll offer a few suggestions that may help.