Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergies

By Jessica Hohensee, UWO Health Promotion Intern

The digestive system’s main function is to digest food. Digestion is important for breaking down food into nutrients because your body needs it for energy, growth, and cell repair. There are many college students that struggle with digestive disorders that would usually go unnoticed for most of us. About 1% of adults and 7% of children have a food allergy or food intolerance. It is important that we know about even the most minor digestive disorders so we are able to help others in case of certain emergencies. So, what exactly is the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy? Many of us use intolerance and allergy interchangeably, but they are several differences between them.

So, a food intolerance does not usually cause a life threatening reaction. An intolerance just means that a person may be unable to digest a certain food which can cause some digestive irritability and unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms could include gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. It is important to know that most of these intolerances don’t cause serious risks to the function of the digestive tract just unpleasant symptoms that want to be avoided. Some causes of food intolerance would be an absence of of an enzyme that is needed to digest that specific food, having irritable bowel syndrome, having a sensitivity to food additives, stress or psychological factors, or even Celiac disease.

A food allergy can become more dangerous and cause life-threatening reactions like anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction. Anaphylaxis means that your throat begins to close and it is difficult unable to breathe. An allergy means the immune system attacks a harmless substance as if it is a foreign invader such as a virus or bacteria and it can affect different organs in the body. Some symptoms could include hives, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and tightened throat. The end result of this could lead to the use of an epipen or hospitalization. Some common food allergies to be aware of include peanuts, eggs, dairy, nuts, gluten, and shellfish.

To help those with intolerances and allergies, it is important to follow some key tips and tricks to keep everyone safe from a reaction. If you are in a school or workplace setting, it is important to make sure that you become aware of who may be eating next to you and if there is anything in your lunch that may pose a risk to them. Keep an eye on these allergies and label foods when you are sharing or passing a dish to ensure that no one will be affected by this. If you have an allergy or intolerance, don’t forget to speak up when out at restaurants or school to ensure that others around you can help!