What is a food intolerance?
Have you ever had an upset stomach or felt nauseated after eating certain foods? It could be an intolerance. A food intolerance, or sensitivity, happens when you experience difficulty digesting a particular food. It’s estimated that up to 20 percent of the world’s population may have a food intolerance.3
While food allergies mainly involve the immune system, a food intolerance mainly involves the digestive system. Symptoms of food intolerance can be delayed by up to 48 hours and last a long time, making the offending food especially difficult to pinpoint. Similar to food allergies, common symptoms include:3
Lactose, wheat, gluten, caffeine, and additives such as artificial sweeteners, coloring, and other flavorings are some common types of food intolerance.4
When it comes to gluten, many people have unpleasant symptoms even when they test negative for celiac disease. This is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and has been estimated to impact 0.5 to 13 percent of the population.3 NCGS is often defined by what it’s not: It is not an allergic reaction such as a wheat allergy, and it’s not an autoimmune reaction such as celiac disease, either.
Chances are, you’ve experienced an unwelcome reaction to eating a particular food or even avoided certain foods altogether because of the subsequent symptoms that occur. The next step is to find out if it’s truly an allergy or an intolerance.
How can you tell if you have a food allergy or intolerance—and why does it matter?
With similar and overlapping symptoms, such as stomach pain and nausea, it can be difficult to identify the cause of your problem. But it’s a really important distinction to make because if you have a food allergy, your reaction can be severe and even life-threatening, even after coming into contact with a tiny amount of the food. While a food intolerance can be a major inconvenience, it’s not as serious as food allergy.
The first step in managing symptoms is seeking appropriate care. Talk to your healthcare provider about your history and symptoms. Then, testing can come into play. Various different types of allergy tests are available.. Once you have a clear picture of what could be causing symptoms, you and your healthcare provider can create an appropriate management plan that will likely include ways to avoid certain triggers.
Getting to the bottom of your food allergy or food intolerance symptoms may seem tricky, and at times frustrating, due to overlapping symptoms, timing of reactions, and other foods encountered after ingesting a trigger food. But remember that you are not alone in the world of food allergy and intolerance. Talk to your healthcare provider about your experiences and know your testing options. With the right test and management plan, you’ll be well on your way to relief.