An estimated 1 in 7 Canadians suffer from food allergies, while an estimated 1 in 4 Canadians suffer from food intolerance.

The key difference between food allergies and food intolerance is how the body reacts.

A food allergy is caused when your immune system responds negatively to something you ate. Symptoms of food allergies can be mild – including sneezing, rash or hives – to more severe – such as throat irritation and breathing difficulty, also known as anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis is considered a life-threatening immune system response, and it is important that you seek medical attention immediately should you develop this kind of reaction. Though you can have an allergic reaction to almost anything, foods such as nuts, fish, soy and wheat are responsible for approximately 90% of food-related allergies. In fact, some of these allergies – especially nut allergies – can be so severe that many schools no longer allow peanut butter to be brought into the classroom. Many companies that make baked goods also now offer their foods free of these allergens, or bake their products in peanut-free facilities to avoid potential cross contamination.

Food intolerance is a bit more difficult to diagnose. Unlike food allergies, food intolerance does not involve the immune system. It can also take hours – and sometimes even days – for symptoms of food intolerance to appear. Common symptoms that are associated with food intolerance include gut-related problems, such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. You can also develop things like skin problems, headache, and fatigue. Common food intolerances include gluten, lactose, and caffeine. However, you can be intolerant to many different foods at once, and because of this it is oftentimes difficult to be able to pinpoint which food, exactly, is the culprit of your symptoms. In order to be able to determine which foods you’re sensitive to, Dr. Ali Ghahary, a family physician in Vancouver, recommends patients try what’s known as an “elimination diet”. An elimination diet works by removing the suspected foods from your diet for 2 to 6 weeks and then slowly reintroducing it. If you notice relief of your symptoms once the food has been eliminated only to discover that the symptoms return once you have reintroduced it into your diet, then you’ll be able to tell what foods you are intolerant to.

While it’s not known what causes food allergies, some studies have suggested that food intolerance may contribute to certain lifestyle habits, such as diets that lack essential nutrients or are low in fibre.

If you don’t have a well-balanced, healthy diet, you could benefit from speaking to a dietitian, which can be done by contacting HealthLink BC. There, you will be able to connect with a dietitian via telephone and e-mail, and they will be able to help you with all your dietary-related questions.