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Food allergies vs. intolerance: what a dietitian says to know

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Posted at 5:43 AM, Feb 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-12 07:54:24-05

PHOENIX — Nutritionists say there are a growing number of tests claiming to help figure out if you have a food allergy but they warn some could do more harm than good.

Registered Dietitian Cathy Deimeke, at Mayo Clinic, says it boils down to knowing the difference between an allergy and an intolerance.

Very basically, an intolerance makes you feel bad -- maybe an upset stomach or even severe cramps. An allergy will induce a physical reaction every time, like a rash, throat swelling and trouble breathing, and the reaction could kill you.

Deimeke says 90 percent of allergies stem from eight foods: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and fish.

While changing digestive tracks can allow kids to grow out of an allergy, the same can build an intolerance in adults.

"As we get older, there could just be foods that just don't sit well with us anymore," said Deimeke.

She warns you not let an intolerance lure you into unnecessary tests, like hair and gastric juice tests readily available online, and diet restrictions that may not solve the problem and can zap you of other vital nutrients.

"We're so happy to think, 'this is my solution, this is why I’ve been feeling bad,' and it can be a very strong placebo effect and then you go on to restrict or limit a lot of when in fact that isn’t the problem," Deimeke said.

Instead, follow up with a board certified allergist if you have physical reactions. They’ll likely start with a blood or skin test and that should identify most allergies. Also, start paying attention to labels on foods to better track ingredients that could make you sick.

Eight percent of kids under three and three percent of adults have a true food allergy.

Doctors recommend introducing whole foods to kids after six months. Also, be sure to serve one food at time, and don't mix them until you know the child doesn't have a reaction. An early indicator is if parents have an allergy, their kids are more likely to have one, but it may not be the same food.