Food Allergy vs. Food Sensitivity: What’s the Difference?



Good morning –Happy  Monday! I hope everyone had a good weekend!

Today we are going to look at food allergies and sensitivities.

This is another subject I’m very familiar with. Nowadays, having a food allergy is not an uncommon thing. However, fishwhen I was a kid, it wasn’t as common – see, I was allergic to fish. My mother figured it out when I was a toddler after  she tried to give me a taste of fish for the first time. My lips blew up!

Not a good look…

I spent my childhood avoiding all seafood – allergy testing to determine what exactly I was allergic to wasn’t on the agenda. One benefit: It made me into a big sports fan as I went to all the Friday night football and basketball games because my parents fried fish every Friday – allergic kid or not. LOL

Fortunately, my kids are not allergic so I have tasked my husband with providing fish for them regularly since it is good for you. I just stay out of the way!

Either way, even with all that we have learned about food allergies since I was a child, there is still some confusion about the subject. Let’s try to clarify a little.

Food Allergy or Food Sensitivity?

There’s still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the subject of food allergies and food insensitivities.

Many people experience abnormal reactions after ingesting a particular food and suspect that they are allergic to it. However, statistics show that only up to 5% of the adult population and up to 8% of the younger population has been found to be allergic to certain food groups. Others who experienced negative reactions after eating specific foods have diagnosed as having food sensitivities and not a food allergy.

What’s The Difference?

Food Allergy

While some of the symptoms of food allergies or food sensitivity are very similar, the body’s reaction is verypeanuts different. A food allergy is triggered by an individual’s reaction by the immune system to a certain food.

The symptoms of a food allergy include:

  • rash or hives
  • nausea
  • crampy stomach pain
  • diarrhea
  • itchy skin
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • swelling of the airways to the lungs including lips, tongue, or throat
  • anaphylactic shock

Allergies are triggered by even small amounts of the problematic food and occur with every exposure. If you have a food allergy, it is best to avoid the offending food all together.


On the other hand, food sensitivity refers to those symptoms that do not result from a reaction by a person’s immune system. People suffer from food sensitivity because their bodies lack the needed enzymes to properly digest the food or have sensitivities to additives or other components of the food.

Symptoms of a food intolerance include:

  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • gas bloating
  • vomiting
  • heartburn
  • diarrhea
  • headaches
  • irritability

Often, these reactions are dose-dependent: a little of the offending food may not cause much of a reaction but frequent or large ingestions may unleash a serious reaction.

It may be difficult to determine on your own if the observed symptoms are caused by insensitivity or an allergy to a food. It may be necessary to seek the assistance of a doctor and dietitian to determine which you have and help you develop a plan.

Steps to Diagnosis

Food Diary

If the symptoms are more discomforting than dangerous, it may be worth becoming more aware of specific foodsDiary eaten and your body’s reaction to them. One way to do this is with a food diary. You record all foods eaten and any reaction to them  – sometimes for a month or more. This will help you identify the offending foods, and any other commonalities like if there were specific combinations that caused the issues.

Elimination Diet

With an elimination diet, you completely eliminate the suspected offending foods from your diet completely until all symptoms are gone. Then, you reintroduce the foods back into the diet one at a time, so a specific food can be connected directly to the return of any symptoms.

It’s best to have a doctor or dietitian involved to make sure your diet is nutritionally sufficient during this process and to monitor the process.  To further clarify the findings, your doctor may also add a skin test or blood test to help diagnose a possible food allergy.

If your symptoms are more dangerous, your doctor may not advise taking these steps. They may do the blood work or skin testing but that will vary based on your situation and your doctor.

Ways to Reduce Negative Reactions Caused by Food Sensitivity

How can you reduce or eliminate the effects of food intolerances? A low-allergen diet may vary from one person to another, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Depending on the nature and severity of the food intolerance, some options are:

  • Take a break from eating the offending food

musselsYou can try this strategy after the offending food is identified: you refrain from eating it for a period of time. The period of abstinence from the trigger food will vary and may be as long as many months. The goal is that the body’s immune system ‘forgets’ the food and stops seeing it as a threat to defend against. This is called tolerance. However,  how long it would take to develop this tolerance, how long it would last, or whether it would work or not also varies from patient to patient.

  • Eat the food on a rotation/limited basis

This is when the food that caused the intolerance is still eaten but less frequently, giving the body enough time to clear the offending food before reintroducing the same kind of food into the body. This can be effective in cases of mild food sensitivity as the digestive system is not overloaded with foods it has trouble digesting due to reduced enzyme levels. You may have to deal with some discomfort if you try this method.

Again, these suggestions are not for food allergies but mild food intolerances.

Key Points

For food allergies, it is often necessary to completely eliminate the food from the diet and to keep an Epi-Pen or similar device available and to get immediate medical assistance in case of accidental exposure. In cases of severe reactions, this is the only safe option as the symptoms can be life-threatening.

For food intolerances, the management will vary with the severity of the symptoms. Avoidance may be an option, or you can limit your exposure to the offending food. You can also attempt to develop a tolerance to the food as noted above. Depending on the reason for the intolerance—be it the lack of an enzyme – the doctor may be able to treat the underlying cause and lessen the symptoms of exposure. Or you may be able to treat the individual symptoms as they occur (such as with antacids for heartburn).

Discuss your options with your doctor!

This publication is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Medical advice should always be obtained from a qualified medical professional for any health conditions or symptoms associated with them. 


As for me, I have several epi-pens around the house now. I’ve managed to limit my actual exposure to fish as an adult for the most part, but it took a couple of instances to beat the importance of being prepared into my head.

One evening, I attended a Medical Society dinner meeting and the entree was surf and turf. I asked for another option, and they had spaghetti – which they must have cooked in the same pot! LOL (not really). My lips proceeded to swell up – fortunately in a room full of doctors! – and they gave me Benadryl and sent me home.

The other instance wasn’t a food allergy – I also happen to be allergic to latex. Woo hoo! Very bad when I was a practicing surgeon since many of the gloves at that time were made of latex. I had learned I was allergic in the middle of my surgery rotation in med school.

However, during residency, some of my mentors didn’t actually believe I was “allergic”. It was the “sexy” thing to say so you could wear the cool non-latex gloves. I had one force me to wear latex gloves to prep a patient, and within 2 minutes of putting the gloves on, I was breaking out in hives! That’ll show him!  Again in a room of doctors – lucky me! – so the other attendings treated me quickly with no ill effects.

That mentor spent the next 2 years telling EVERYONE that I was really allergic to latex and making a big point of having the expensive non-latex gloves available everywhere for me.

What it taught me was to be louder (I shouldn’t have put them on!) and to have my Epi-Pen available at all times.

Food allergies and sensitivities can be scary but for me, being prepared, asking questions, reading labels, and working with my doctors have make it easier.

‘Til tomorrow!

Loving Life–The Reboot!




  • Andie Thueson

    I didn’t realize there were signs that can determine the difference between allergy vs sensitivity. This is incredibly helpful! I am bookmarking this for sure.

  • Teacher Kendall

    I have a lot of food sensitivities and no food allergies. It’s interesting how many ways your body can demonstrate a sensitivity – a lot of mine are skin-related, but also digestion and sinus congestion. Also, I find myself telling waiters that I just have a sensitivity, otherwise they get all freaked out these days (esp about dairy and gluten) – “well, our kitchen isn’t gluten-free, etc. etc.” I mostly don’t need to worry about cross-contamination, but do notice that if I eat out frequently my symptoms start to flare. Just a reminder to eat at home more often, nothing wrong with that!

    • Dominique

      I hear you. I went to a wedding – the bride was Korean so many of the foods at the reception had seafood in them – and asking the servers was absolutely no help! LOL I decided to stick with cake just to be sure.

      Sometimes it is easier to eat at home!

  • Samantha Elaine

    So. Much. Yes. So many people misunderstand this concept! My husband is sensitive/intolerant to both lactose and gluten, and his friends act like he’s making it up bc he’s not allergic.

    • Dominique

      It was so frustrating to not be believed about things like this. Even if you aren’t going into shock, the reaction is still very uncomfortable to say the least. People don’t realize there’s a range of reactions on the sensitivity/allergy scale.

  • sambo

    This is a very thorough post! When I research for food sensitivity, I found this blog. For me, I do not have any issue with seafood but my friend has a prawn alergic reaction. Sadly, he cannot eat prawn as much as I like. Hence, every time , we go out, we had to find non-seafood place instead. sad…

    • Dominique

      Yes, I know the feeling. My husband is a big fish fan. We still go to restaurants that serve fish but we make sure there other things that I can eat!

  • Caitlin

    These are such great points! I suffer from lactose intolerance and only discovered it by doing a food elimination! It’s always good to be able to track down what is causing discomfort.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: