Making Sense of Food Sensitivities and How They Differ from Food Allergies

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Contrary to popular belief, food sensitivities and food allergies are not the same.  Although they’re both overreactions of the immune system to food, they are two very different reactions that occur in the body. Think of sensitivities as the Northern State Parkway and allergies as the Southern State Parkway. They are two separate roads that run parallel to each other but never intersect. What happens on one has no influence on the other. The same is true with sensitivities and allergies.

The biggest difference between the two is that sensitivities are non-immunoglobulin E (IgE) reactions to foods, whereas allergies are solely IgE reactions. This means that sensitivities are not fatal but allergies can be. Another difference is that sensitivity reactions can take up to three days to appear, while allergic reactions usually occur within an hour of consuming the offending food (oftentimes much faster). This makes it incredibly easy to determine what foods an individual is allergic to but incredibly difficult to determine which foods someone is sensitive to.

The dosage of the food consumed is another area where these reactions diverge. Sensitivities are dose dependent—meaning reactions only occur after a certain amount of a food is consumed. The amount that triggers an immune reaction varies among individuals, but can range from one sip or bite to half a glass or half a meal! The same cannot be said for allergies, as trace amounts are enough to trigger an immune response.

Symptoms of food sensitivities are chronic, vague and can be attributed to more than one condition. Constant fatigue is a great example. Although fatigue can be the result of a lack of sleep, an iron deficiency, megaloblastic anemia (a B12 deficiency), excessive stress, an underactive thyroid, sleep apnea or other conditions, fatigue can also be the result of food sensitivities. Since it is common to treat symptoms and not the root cause of the symptoms, sensitivities often go undiscovered and untreated.

Other symptoms of food sensitivities include constipation, brain fog, bloating, gas, nasal congestion, eczema, abdominal pain, joint pain and depression. Symptoms are persistent, and although they are not fatal, will negatively affect one’s quality of life.

The same is not true for allergies, which occur rapidly and typically require immediate medical attention. Wheezing, shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, and a drop in blood pressure are some examples of severe symptoms.

If you have been suffering with nagging symptoms that do not go away no matter what you do (diet changes, exercise, medications, etc.), you might want to consider food sensitivities as a possible cause.

Ryan Whitcomb, MS, RD, CLT, is the owner of GUT RXN Nutrition, a private practice where he treats individuals with digestive disorders and chronic inflammation related to food sensitivities. For more information, call 866-321-2035 or visit

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