In recent years, there has been a notable increase in food allergies. While the exact cause of this is unknown, there are theories about why it happens.
“We’ve become cleaner for the sake of hygiene, and our body’s immune system is now highly protected,” said Satish Rao, MD, PhD, professor of Medicine and J. Harold Harrison Distinguished Chair in Gastroenterology at Augusta University. “When the immune system sees an invading agent, it overreacts. That’s what I consider the best explanation for the increase in food allergies.”
Food Allergies vs Food Intolerance
According to Dr. Rao, the increase in food allergies could also be caused by environmental toxins or other factors. Whatever the cause, it’s important to understand what a food allergy is and what it isn’t.
A genuine food allergy can be dangerous. While children often outgrow them, there is no medical way to reverse food allergies. These occur when the immune system mistakes harmless food proteins for an invader and attacks. This can cause stomach pain, rash, swelling, internal bleeding or anaphylaxis.
Food intolerance, on the other hand, is never life-threatening. Caused when the body struggles to process certain foods, an intolerance can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and bloating. Because of the similarity of some symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance.
Most Common Food Allergies
Approximately 32 million Americans have food allergies, which can be caused by any food. However, some allergies more common than others. What are the most common food allergies?
- Milk and dairy products
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews, etc.)
- Seafood (fish or shellfish)
Catching Food Allergies
While there are accurate tests for celiac disease (allergy to the gluten protein found in wheat) and milk allergy, other food allergy tests are inconclusive or misleading. If tests often fail, what is the most accurate way to identify food allergies? Close observation to determine the trigger or an elimination diet.
With an elimination diet, you remove any potentially offending food from your diet. Once symptoms go away, you add foods back into your diet, one at a time. If symptoms return, you know what the offending food is. Before cutting foods, talk to your doctor.
“Restricting your diet without medical guidance can cause malnourishment,” Dr. Rao said. “If you suspect you have a food allergy, first work with your provider to ensure it’s not intolerance. Then follow your provider’s recommendations to deal with the issue.”