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traditional Japanese sushi

Food Allergy vs. Sensitivity

  blog post author icon   blog post published date icon   12/06/21

Cooking  Nutrition  Supplements  

Most of us have heard of food allergies. Not as many are aware of food sensitivities. The problem with these labels is that they are often confused by laypeople, who assume they have a food allergy when they have a food sensitivity.

Why does that matter? Well, because you will need to take different measures when it comes to food allergy vs. sensitivity.

traditional Japanese sushi

Food Allergy vs. Sensitivity

  blog post author icon   blog post published date icon   12/06/21

Cooking  Nutrition  Supplements  

Most of us have heard of food allergies. Not as many are aware of food sensitivities. The problem with these labels is that they are often confused by laypeople, who assume they have a food allergy when they have a food sensitivity.

Why does that matter? Well, because you will need to take different measures when it comes to food allergy vs. sensitivity.

Did you know that more than 20% of people in industrialized countries like America suffer from a food sensitivity? Whereas, the prevalence of true food allergy is only 2-5%. 

What Is Food Sensitivity?

The first thing to know about food sensitivity is that they don't involve the immune system at all (whereas food allergies do). When you have a food sensitivity, you might be missing an enzyme or something else to digest the particular food properly, which causes your digestive system to have a negative reaction to the food item.

For example, you might have a food sensitivity to lactose (in milk), and that could be because your body doesn't have the enzyme lactase to digest the lactose. This means that either you take lactose pills when you drink milk or eat milk products. Or your body will react by bloating up or having digestive issues.

As you can imagine, food sensitivities aren't so urgent or problematic as food allergies might be. Nor are they as dangerous, as your immune system doesn't flare up in this case. 

It's merely a case of your body not having the right 'equipment' to deal with the particular food item.

What Is a Food Allergy?

Food allergies, on the other hand, are a whole another gamut. They are much more serious than food sensitivities because in this case, your body's immune system starts intruding and participating in the process.

The most commonly well-known example of this is a peanut allergy. When someone with a peanut allergy unknowingly consumes peanuts (or food items processed next to peanuts), then depending on the severity of their allergy, it can result in an anaphylactic shock where they have difficulty breathing and have to be given epinephrine to stop the immune reaction from exacerbating.

A food allergy will also have digestive symptoms, but they will be much more severe than what a food-sensitive person would have. In addition, you will also notice hives and skin reactions to the food item in question.

What Is the Difference or Similarity Between the Two?

Besides the severity of the reaction due to the immune system being involved and the frequency in the population, there are some other differences between the two kinds of food issues. Let's look at them below.

The Timing of the Reaction

This is a big one to remember. With food intolerances, you might react to the food item from 1 hour to 48 hours after consumption.

This is a wide timeline, which is why a lot of people are unaware that they have a food sensitivity. The reaction they have to that piece of bread they had 2 days ago is showing up now, but they don't make that connection. That's why a food sensitivity test is so necessary for detecting food sensitivities.

With a food allergy, the negative reaction to the food ingested is almost instantaneous.

The Kind of Reaction

A person with a food sensitivity will react mostly in the digestive or intestine, in the form of bloating, diarrhea, or vomiting. Thus, it's localized to the digestive tract. 

Some other food sensitivity reactions are:

  • Fatigue or feeling tired
  • Migraines
  • Bloated
  • Stomach pain
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal distress (vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and more)

But with a food allergy, the individual could have a reaction that involves multiple organs, with life-threatening reactions, like difficulty breathing, and even death. It's much more serious and it should be taken as such. No wonder peanuts and related items are prohibited in public school systems!

Some other food allergy reactions are:

  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Face, tongue, or lip swelling
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rash on the skin or flushed skin
  • Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Hives
  • And more

As you can see, it's quite easy to catch a food allergy as soon as it happens, because of the widespread fast reaction.

Different Foods Involved

According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), 8 major allergens accounted for 90% of food allergies and serious allergic reactions in the US. These are:

  • milk
  • eggs
  • shellfish
  • fish
  • tree nuts
  • peanuts
  • wheat
  • soybeans

Food allergy testing will let you know exactly what kind of food you are allergic to.

Food sensitivity, on the other hand, includes a wider variety of food items. Some of these are:

  • Gluten (present in wheat-based products)
  • Dairy 
  • Amines (present in fermented foods)
  • Food additives and preservatives
  • Nightshade foods (bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and more)
  • Caffeine
  • And more

As you can see, the list is quite different from each other. Since such a wide variety of items can cause food sensitivity, many people go undiagnosed for years because they just assume that's how their body functions. It's easy to overlook a food sensitivity, whereas it's impossible to do so with a food allergy.

Interestingly enough, a person with a food sensitivity might have an adverse reaction to a food when the food is encountered in large amounts or frequently, but not every single time! This makes it even more difficult to know if you have a food sensitivity or not.

What Can You Do To Minimize the Risk of Either of the Two?

If you have a food allergy or food sensitivity, you might be wondering if all hope is lost for you. Will you never be able to consume this food ever again? Well, for a person with a food allergy that might be true as that food should be avoided completely and forever.

BUT, for an individual with food sensitivity, there are certain measures you can take to ensure that your body can process the offensive food item better.

Improve Your Gut Health

The most important thing you can do to improve your food sensitivities is to start taking care of your gut microbiome as if it were your precious baby. Most people are ignorant of or ignore the presence of their gut microbiome, but that's a mistake.

Start feeding your gut biome prebiotic foods, like cooked or raw onions, garlic, and other items, to ensure their health. Also, take gut health supplements (probiotics) to propagate your gut with healthy bacteria rather than unhealthy ones.

Avoid sugar, white flour, and processed foods as much as possible as it's not good for your gut bacteria.

Eat Everything in Moderation

One reason why you might have an unhealthy gut biome or a food sensitivity might be because you are eating too much of something, inundating your body with it every single day.

The name of the game is variety. The more you can mix and match different ingredients, spices, and herbs in your daily diet, the better it is for your gut biome and your overall health. 

Most Americans get only 3 kinds of vegetables in their diet: potatoes in the form of fries or chips, onions on their burgers, and tomatoes in the form of ketchup or tomato sauce. With such a mediocre and mundane diet, no wonder food sensitivities are popping like weeds in many Americans.

There are so many different kinds of fruits and vegetables out there, along with herbs and spices, that you could eat something different every single day of the week, without running out of options. Don't be boring in your diet choices. Experiment with food items and see your health blossom.

Also, try out cuisines from different regions of the world, as this will result in more variety in your diet, and that's always a great thing for your gut and health.

Minimize Eating Out

The best way for you to know exactly what's in your food is by cooking it yourself. Americans spend way too much money and time eating out at restaurants, which might seem like a good idea because you are supporting the economy and your neighbors. But it isn't so great for your wallet or your gut health.

Try to order takeaway or eat out only once or twice a week. Make it a special occasion rather than an everyday kind of deal.

Lifestyle Changes Are Necessary To Avoid Food Sensitivity

If you have food sensitivity, then you might be wondering if you have to do an overhaul of your entire lifestyle. But that's not truly necessary.

All you need to do is make certain minor changes to your behavior and food habits, and that should improve your food sensitivity dramatically.

Looking for more healthy living whole foods recipes? Check out SupplementRelief's online cookbook and get started on your healthier lifestyle today!

headshot of Jay Todtenbier 2018

Jay Todtenbier is an original founder of in 2010 and has operated the business ever since. He is also a tennis instructor and gospel musician. Formerly he spent 25 years in business development, technology and marketing with startups and major corporations having gone through the tech boom in Silicon Valley in the 90s. He became passionate about, and began studying and practicing Wellness as a Lifestyle after experiencing chronic, personal health challenges including depression, auto-immune disorders, and being overweight that impacted his ability to live a healthy, vibrant life. Since then, he has been an advocate for healthier living encouraging others to live better through making small, gradual changes to lifestyle behaviors relating to whole-foods nutrition, stress management, reasonable exercise, proper sleep, and the use of targeted, high-quality supplements.

Learn more about Jay Todtenbier.

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