Food Allergies 101

If you or anyone close to you do not have food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances, consider yourself lucky. They seem to be becoming more common among the general population, especially children. There are many theories as to why including a change in our gut bacteria, environmental and physical stressors, overuse of antibiotics…just to name a few.


Food Allergies

Food allergies often get the most attention. This type of hypersensitivity involves the immune system and is characterized as the anaphylactic, throat swelling, need to go to the ER type of reaction.


Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities are less researched so we know much less.  There is alot of misinformation about these online so be careful of your source.  As with allergies, they also involve the immune system but their reaction is usually delayed which makes them hard to pinpoint. Symptoms may include GI distress, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, joint and muscle aches and pain, migraines, headaches, fatigue, irritability, rashes, behavior changes, chronic sinusitis, chronic lung infections, brain fog, etc.  


Food Intolerances

Food intolerances do not involve the immune system. The most common type of intolerance is lactose intolerance, which means you are unable to digest the lactose found in dairy products. 


Common Food Allergens and Sensitivities

The most common food allergens and sensitivities are to dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Also of note but less common are citrus, tomatoes, corn and strawberries.


One approach would be to eliminate the top allergens and then introduce them one at a time to assess tolerance. This can be time consuming and tricky and I would recommend always working with a Registered Dietitian that is trained in food allergies/sensitivities to be sure your diet is nutritionally adequate. Another approach would to be tested through an Allergist or a Certified LEAP Therapist to pinpoint you or your child’s problematic foods.


Depending on what you find, here are some tips for avoiding the top allergens:


1. For nut and peanut allergies, try seeds instead. Although sesame seeds can often cross-react, you can choose from sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds. There are sunflower seed butters widely available that could easily replace peanut butter.


2. Many non-dairy milk are on the market today. Almond milk, coconut milk, flax milk, rice milk, sunflower milk and oat milk just to name a few. Manufacturers of these products often sell non-dairy yogurts as well.


3. To replace eggs in baked goods, mix 1 tbsp flaxseed with 2.5 tbsp water and allow to gel. One egg = 1 tbsp flaxeed. Adjust according to your recipe.


4. Instead of using wheat, try alternative grains and flours such as quinoa, millet, rice, amaranth, buckwheat and teff. There are many wheat free options on the market today but also experiment with cooking and baking these grains at home!


5. Try replacing fish and shellfish with beans. Beans are not likely to illicit an immune response in most people.


6. Some of these foods (like corn and soy) can be tricky to avoid. They can be disguised in products when labeled as something else. This is where working with a nutrition professional pays off.


The immune system is a tricky thing! Be sure to take into consideration other compounding factors that can effect the health of the immune system.  These include stress, proper nutrition overall (regular and consistent eating patterns), lack of sleep and physical activity (too little or too much). 


One last point: I find it common for chronic dieters to have many foods they feel are problematic. Could it be that viewing foods as potential irritants and eating them with the fear that they may cause weight gain or be bad for me could trigger an immune response?  I postulate yes.  For this reason, I most definitely recommend practicing a new way of thinking and behaving around food – one that will encourage healing and recovery in many ways, including immune health.  


Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD