Food Allergies 101: Everything You Need to Know
Food allergies are a common problem that can affect people of all ages.
Addressing food allergies and sensitivities is one of the first steps you should take when planning out a healthy diet. In fact, being aware of exactly what’s in your food and how your body may react is integral to maintaining overall health. It can also help you eliminate allergens from your daily diet to prevent negative side effects, which can range from nausea, gas, and nasal congestion to difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis.
Being well-aware of the signs and symptoms of food allergies can help increase your awareness to pinpoint potential problems in your diet. Check out this comprehensive guide for everything you need to know about food allergies, including the most common symptoms, top food allergens, and key differences between food allergies and intolerances/sensitivities.
What Are Food Allergies?
Food allergies are a condition in which the proteins found in certain foods set off an immune response in your body, triggering the release of specific chemicals like histamine. (1) These chemicals trigger the symptoms typically associated with an allergic reaction to food, including common side effects like hives, swelling, or digestive issues.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies affect between 4-6% of children and around 4% of adults in the United States (2). Not only that, but the prevalence of food allergies has slowly started to increase over the years. Interestingly enough, it’s estimated that the incidence of food allergies has increased by a whopping 18% between 1997-2007 among those under 18. Furthermore, kids with a food allergy are two to four times more likely to have related complications, which may include asthma or other food allergies (3).
The severity of food allergy symptoms can range quite a bit, from minor reactions to more serious side effects like anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening reaction that can be triggered by conditions like a shellfish or peanut allergy.
Healthcare professionals can conduct special tests for food allergies, which generally involves consuming a small amount of the food in question to look for possible symptoms. Blood tests are also available, which measure the levels of specific antibodies in the blood. A skin prick test can be performed as well to look for an allergic reaction after the suspected allergen is placed beneath the skin. Additionally, home food allergy testing kits can even be purchased from some pharmacies and online retailers.
Although there is no cure for food allergies, there are several possible food allergy treatments available. The most common way to prevent symptoms is to simply avoid all contact with potential allergens altogether. Antihistamines can be used to relieve mild symptoms, and other medications like epinephrine can also help treat more serious reactions.
Food Allergy Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a food allergy can range pretty widely in severity. Side effects typically appear within minutes of exposure to an allergen and may last up to several hours later.
Here are a few of the most common food allergy symptoms:
- Stomach pain
- Skin rash
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
- Tingling lips
- Difficulty breathing
- Nasal congestion
Top 9 Common Food Allergies
Over 160 foods can cause an allergic reaction in those with food allergies. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration, eight foods account for around 90% of allergic reactions. Collectively known as the “Big-8,” these ingredients are required to be identified on food labels in the United States to help consumers avoid potential allergens and prevent negative side effects (4).
Here are a few of the most common allergies:
1. Wheat allergy
Those with a wheat allergy have a reaction to some of the specific proteins found in wheat, resulting in symptoms like hives, swelling, and digestive issues. Wheat allergies are most common in children, but tend to resolve by early to late childhood (5). However, note that this condition shouldn’t be confused with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that causes digestive distress and is set off by gluten, a protein found in wheat and other cereal grains (6).
2. Tree nut allergy
As one of the most common food allergies, tree nut allergies are estimated to affect around 1% of the population (7). This condition causes an allergic reaction to the nuts that grow on trees, including almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, pistachios, and pecans. Although peanuts don’t make the official tree nuts list, some individuals who are allergic to peanuts may be allergic to the tree nuts as well (and vice versa).
3. Egg allergy
Egg allergies are very common in children, but often resolve in later years. In fact, according to a study published in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 68% of children with egg allergies develop a tolerance by age 16 (8). Because cooking and heat can alter some of the proteins found in eggs, many people with egg allergies are able to consume cooked products made with eggs without experiencing any adverse side effects.
4. Shellfish allergy
Those with an allergy to shellfish react to some of the specific proteins found in fish within the crustacean or mollusk family. Some common examples of shellfish include shrimp, lobster, oysters, crab, mussels, clams, scallops, and squid. This type of allergy can cause side effects ranging from swelling, itching, and wheezing to more serious complications like anaphylaxis.
5. Peanut allergy
Peanut allergies are believed to affect up to 8% of children and 2% of adults. While it is usually a lifelong condition, 15-22% of children outgrow their allergy before they reach their teenage years (9). Symptoms can range in severity, but can cause life-threatening complications like anaphylaxis in some cases. Additionally, although peanuts are not considered tree nuts, around 30% of those who are allergic to peanuts may also be allergic to tree nuts as well (10).
6. Fish allergy
Fish allergies are relatively common and may impact between 0.2-2.3% of adults (11). This type of allergy can also develop later in life, including into adulthood. It commonly causes digestive symptoms such as nausea, gas, and diarrhea. However, it can also cause more serious side effects in some individuals as well.
7. Soy allergy
For those with a soy allergy, consuming soybeans and soy products like tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, and soy milk can cause symptoms like nasal congestion, hives, and swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat. This type of allergy most commonly affects infants and toddlers, but the majority tend to outgrow it within a few years (12).
8. Milk allergy
Cow’s milk allergy, or dairy allergy, is the most common childhood allergy, affecting 2-3% of infants within the first year of life (13). Fortunately, however, most children outgrow a milk protein allergy before reaching adulthood.
There are two different types of milk allergies, including IgE and non-IgE forms. These two types differ in the symptoms that they typically present with as well as the ways that they are diagnosed. Regardless of which form you may have, the only effective treatment is to eliminate milk and milk-containing products from your diet altogether, including cheese, yogurt, butter, margarine, and ice cream made from cow’s milk.
9. Other allergies
Although the allergies mentioned above are the most common, there are many other foods that can trigger an allergic reaction in certain people as well. Here are some other potential food allergies:
- Avocado allergy
- Banana allergy
- Celery allergy
- Citrus allergy
- Garlic allergy
- Latex allergy
- Meat allergy
- Sesame seed allergy
Food Allergies vs. Intolerances/Sensitivities
So what are the differences between a food allergy, food intolerance, and food sensitivity? Although these three terms are often used interchangeably, there are several differences that set these three unique conditions apart.
Food allergies involve an abnormal immune response. This response is triggered when the body mistakenly determines that a protein found in a specific food is harmful.
Intolerances and sensitivities, on the other hand, don’t actually involve the immune system at all. In some cases, you may even be able to eat small amounts of food without any issue with a food intolerance/sensitivity. Compared to a true food allergy, symptoms are also usually much less severe and may involve digestive issues, mood changes, or headaches.
Lactose intolerance is one of the most common examples of a food intolerance, which is caused by a lack of the specific enzyme needed to digest lactose in the body. Many also have a sensitivity to ingredients like caffeine, which can cause issues like anxiety, insomnia, and nervousness when even a small amount is consumed. Egg intolerance is another example that can contribute to symptoms like diarrhea and stomach upset.
Food allergies can affect anyone and can cause a long list of side effects, which can range in severity. Ensuring that you’re aware of the most common food allergens, paying close attention to the way your body reacts to certain foods, and understanding the differences between allergies and intolerances/sensitivities can make it much easier and more manageable to prevent negative side effects.
If you’re looking for more support and ways to eliminate ingredients that you may have an allergy or intolerance to from your diet, then check out our Wellness Coaching. We offer appointments virtually and all of our NS Wellness Coaches are professionally trained to give you expert guidance and practical plans for long-term health! Click here to take the client quiz.