How Can I Determine If I Have A Food Intolerance Or Allergy?

Are certain foods making you feel a little less than your best? It’s time to get to the bottom of it and find out if you have a food intolerance or allergy. In this article, we’ll explore some simple steps you can take to determine if certain foods are causing you discomfort. From keeping a food diary to consulting with a healthcare professional, we’ve got you covered in discovering what’s behind those pesky symptoms. Let’s dive in and put those food mysteries to rest!

Symptoms of Food Intolerance

Digestive Symptoms

Food intolerance can often manifest in various digestive symptoms. These can include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. You may experience these symptoms shortly after consuming certain foods or beverages, and they may persist for a few hours or even days.

Respiratory Symptoms

In some cases, food intolerance can also lead to respiratory symptoms. These may include nasal congestion, sneezing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. These respiratory symptoms may occur due to an inflammatory response triggered by specific foods.

Skin Symptoms

Food intolerance can affect the skin, leading to symptoms such as rashes, hives, itching, or eczema. These skin symptoms may appear soon after consuming trigger foods and can cause discomfort and irritation.


Other less common symptoms of food intolerance may include headaches, fatigue, joint pain, or mood changes. These symptoms can be more difficult to connect with specific foods, but keeping a food diary can help identify potential triggers.

Symptoms of Food Allergy

Skin Symptoms

Food allergies can cause various skin symptoms, including itching, hives, eczema, or swelling of the lips, face, or tongue. These symptoms typically occur within minutes to hours after consuming the allergenic food.

Respiratory Symptoms

Similar to food intolerance, food allergies can also lead to respiratory symptoms. These may include nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing. In severe cases, food allergies can trigger anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Gastrointestinal symptoms associated with food allergies may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. These symptoms can occur shortly after consuming the allergenic food and can range from mild to severe.

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Cardiovascular Symptoms

Food allergies can sometimes cause cardiovascular symptoms such as a drop in blood pressure, rapid pulse, or lightheadedness. These symptoms are more commonly associated with anaphylaxis and require immediate medical attention.


Some individuals with food allergies may also experience symptoms like dizziness, headache, or fatigue. It’s essential to be aware of these symptoms, as they can indicate an allergic reaction and the need for prompt medical evaluation.

Causes of Food Intolerance

Enzyme Deficiency

Food intolerance can occur when your body lacks specific enzymes necessary to digest certain types of food. For example, lactose intolerance occurs when the body lacks the enzyme lactase required to break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.

Sensitivity to Food Additives

Certain food additives, such as artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or food coloring, can trigger intolerance symptoms in sensitive individuals. These additives may irritate the digestive system or cause an inflammatory response, leading to symptoms such as bloating or diarrhea.

Chemical Sensitivity

Some individuals may be sensitive to naturally occurring chemicals in foods, such as histamine or tyramine. These substances can be found in foods like aged cheese, cured meats, or fermented products and may cause symptoms like headaches or skin reactions.

Recurring Stress

Stress can impact digestion and exacerbate food intolerance symptoms. The exact mechanisms are not fully understood, but stress can increase sensitivity to certain foods and contribute to gastrointestinal discomfort.

Causes of Food Allergy

Immune System Response

Food allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies certain proteins in food as harmful and launches an immune response. This response involves the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which trigger the release of chemicals like histamine and cause allergy symptoms.


There is a genetic component to food allergies, as they can run in families. If one or both parents have food allergies, their children may have an increased risk of developing allergies as well.

Allergen Exposure

Developing a food allergy often requires previous exposure to the allergenic food. This exposure can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or even contact with the skin. Repeated exposure to the allergen can sensitize the immune system and lead to the development of an allergic reaction.

Differences Between Food Intolerance and Allergy

Immune System Involvement

One of the key distinctions between food intolerance and allergy is the involvement of the immune system. Food allergies involve an immune response, while food intolerance does not. Allergies trigger the production of IgE antibodies, leading to the release of chemicals that cause allergy symptoms.

Reaction Time

Food intolerances often have a delayed onset of symptoms, with reactions occurring hours or even days after consuming trigger foods. On the other hand, food allergies tend to have a more immediate reaction time, with symptoms appearing within minutes to hours after exposure.

Types of Food Involved

Food intolerances can be triggered by a variety of foods or food components, such as lactose, gluten, or food additives. In contrast, food allergies are typically specific to certain proteins found in common allergenic foods, such as peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, or eggs.

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Severity of Symptoms

While both food intolerance and food allergies can cause discomfort, food allergies have the potential to cause severe and life-threatening symptoms. Anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction involving multiple organ systems, is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.

Common Food Intolerance Triggers


Lactose intolerance is a common food intolerance triggered by the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy products. Symptoms may include bloating, gas, diarrhea, or stomach cramps after consuming lactose-containing foods.


Gluten intolerance, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, can cause digestive symptoms similar to celiac disease, but without the same immune response. Avoiding foods containing gluten, such as wheat, barley, and rye, can alleviate symptoms.


Some individuals may experience intolerance to histamine, a compound naturally present in certain foods. Foods high in histamine, such as aged cheese, fermented foods, or wine, can trigger symptoms like headaches, skin rashes, or gastrointestinal issues in sensitive individuals.


FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates found in certain foods, known to trigger symptoms in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). These include foods like onions, garlic, wheat, and certain fruits. Following a low-FODMAP diet can help manage symptoms in those with intolerances.

Common Food Allergy Triggers


Peanut allergies are prevalent and can cause severe allergic reactions. Even trace amounts of peanuts or peanut products can trigger symptoms, ranging from mild reactions like hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Tree nuts

Tree nuts, including almonds, cashews, and walnuts, can elicit allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. These allergies can have severe consequences and may require strict avoidance of all tree nuts.


Egg allergies are more common in children but can be outgrown over time. Allergies to eggs can cause a range of symptoms, including skin reactions, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory problems.


Fish allergies can be triggered by various types of fish, such as salmon, tuna, or cod. Individuals with fish allergies may experience symptoms like swelling, hives, nausea, or breathing difficulties upon exposure.


Shellfish allergies are divided into two categories: crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crab) and mollusks (clams, mussels, oysters). Allergic reactions to shellfish can range from mild to severe and can be life-threatening in some cases.


Milk allergies primarily affect infants and young children but can persist into adulthood. Allergic reactions to milk can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, skin rashes, or respiratory distress.


Soy allergies are more common in children but can occur in individuals of any age. Avoiding soy-based products is necessary for those with soy allergies to prevent symptoms like hives, gastrointestinal disturbances, or even anaphylaxis.


Wheat allergies can cause a range of symptoms, including skin rashes, gastrointestinal issues, or respiratory problems. For individuals with wheat allergies, avoiding wheat and wheat-containing products is crucial.

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Diagnosing Food Intolerance

Elimination Diet

The elimination diet involves removing potential trigger foods from your diet for a specified period, typically several weeks. After this elimination phase, foods are gradually reintroduced to identify any specific triggers and establish a connection between symptoms and food consumption.

Food Diary

Keeping a detailed food diary can help identify patterns between food consumption and the onset of symptoms. By recording specific foods and the subsequent symptoms experienced, healthcare professionals can analyze the data to understand potential food intolerances.

Hydrogen Breath Test

The hydrogen breath test can help diagnose lactose intolerance and certain types of carbohydrate malabsorption. During the test, you consume a specific substance (e.g., lactose) and then exhale into a device that measures breath hydrogen levels. Elevated levels indicate malabsorption.

Blood Tests

Blood tests can help detect specific antibodies or markers associated with food intolerances. These tests measure immune system reactions to certain foods or food components, providing valuable information for diagnosing intolerances.

Diagnosing Food Allergy

Skin Prick Test

The skin prick test is a common diagnostic tool for identifying food allergies. Small amounts of allergenic extracts are applied to your skin, usually on your forearm or back. If you are allergic, you may develop a raised bump or redness in response to the allergen.

Blood Tests

Blood tests, such as specific IgE tests, can measure the presence and quantity of IgE antibodies against specific allergens in your blood. These tests help identify potential food allergies by determining whether your immune system has produced antibodies in response to specific allergenic foods.

Oral Food Challenge

An oral food challenge involves consuming small amounts of the suspected allergenic food under medical supervision. This method is considered the gold standard for diagnosing food allergies, as it allows for observation of any allergic reactions that occur.

Managing Food Allergy

Strict Avoidance of Allergens

The most effective way to manage food allergies is by strictly avoiding the allergenic foods. Thorough reading of ingredient labels and being aware of cross-contamination risks is crucial. It’s important to educate yourself and others about hidden sources of allergens.

Epinephrine Autoinjector

Individuals diagnosed with severe food allergies should have access to an epinephrine autoinjector, commonly known as an EpiPen. Epinephrine can help alleviate severe allergic reactions until medical help arrives. It is vital to carry and know how to use an autoinjector at all times.

Emergency Action Plan

Developing an emergency action plan with your healthcare professional is essential for managing food allergies. This plan outlines steps to take in case of an allergic reaction, including when to administer epinephrine and when to seek medical help.

Educating Others

Educating those around you about food allergies is crucial for personal safety. Teach close friends, family members, colleagues, and others about the seriousness of food allergies, including potential triggers and how to respond in case of an emergency.

In conclusion, determining whether you have a food intolerance or allergy requires careful observation of your symptoms and, if needed, consultation with a healthcare professional. Knowing the differences between food intolerance and food allergy, understanding common triggers, and following appropriate diagnostic methods can help you manage your specific dietary needs effectively. Remember to prioritize your safety and consult with medical professionals for accurate diagnosis and personalized guidance.