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Food for thought: An allergy or an intolerance?

What's the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance? Understanding the problem is key to finding the right solution.

Do you know the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance? Let's distinguish one from the other, so that you know what to do in each case.

Food allergies and intolerances are hot topics since we seem increasingly concerned with removing certain food suspects from our diet. Labels reflect our sensitivities as food suppliers become increasingly conscious of the need to highlight whether a product is gluten-, wheat- or dairy-free.

The terms allergy and intolerance are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. Each requires a different approach for successful treatment.

According to Davidson's Principles and Practice of Medicine, up to 20 per cent of the US population perceive themselves as suffering from a food allergy but only 1 to 2 per cent of adults and 5 to 7 per cent of children have genuine food allergies.

A food allergy, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, is an immune-system response that affects numerous organs and can cause a wide range of symptoms of varying severity; some can even be life threatening. With a food allergy, even a tiny amount of the offender will cause a reaction. The most common allergens are nuts, shellfish, soy, eggs and gluten.

Symptoms can range from digestive bloating, vomiting and cramping to tingling sensations in the mouth, hives, swelling and eczema. If it is a true allergy, it is unlikely that you would be able to eat this food again without experiencing symptoms. Complete avoidance of the food is essential.

In contrast, a food intolerance does not cause any response from the immune system. Symptoms are generally related to the digestive system and vary from mild bloating to severe digestive discomfort, although lethargy and migraines can also be related.

Intolerances are also dose-specific. Management of an intolerance usually involves the temporary removal of the suspected food from the diet for three months, allowing the digestive system to recover before reintroducing it, if desired, in small quantities.

The best way to protect yourself from food intolerances is to eat a varied diet and avoid eating the same foods day after day.

Laura Holland is a well-being consultant and nutritional therapist. For more information, visit www.BeUtifulYou.co.uk

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