Food Sensitivities & Allergies: What’s the Difference & WHY Are They on the Rise?
This week my daughter joined my husband & millions of other North Americans as being diagnosed with food sensitivities. While we have had our suspicions for some time that something she was eating was affecting her health we wanted to be sure. And not surprisingly the main foods that she is sensitive to are among ‘the most common food allergens’ as listed by the Government of Canada (and many other organizations): milk & wheat; she is also sensitive to almonds and gliadin (another allergen in wheat).
We are strong believers in diet- related health (literally you are what you eat) and tend to think more along the lines of treating a health concern starting from the inside out rather than the outside in. This has lead us think more about why we have a symptom & the source than simply treating the symptoms. For example: if one of us gets a cold we don’t simply take a medicine to treat the symptoms (runny nose, cough, etc), we make efforts to treat the cause/ source of the symptoms (why am I coughing? How & why did I get sick? How can I give my body what it needs to get better? Answer: Give it the nutrients it needs to boost the immune system & fight what’s wrong).Don’t get me wrong, we do have medicine on hand & don’t question the need for traditional healthcare, we just question the cause of the symptom before we treat it, often this eliminates the need for a traditional medicine (note: often not always). In the journey I’ve been taking with Will & now with Ari I’ve been building on this approach and knowledge as I tackle how our family will make further adjustments to our lifestyles and diet choices.
It was tough enough eliminating certain foods with Will, meaning no sandwiches or quick grab & go lunches for him; no deli meats, no out of the freezer pizzas or mac and cheese for lazy dinner nights (albeit these changes were and are for the better), but eliminating these items for Ari will present a slightly different set of challenges, even though our family has already made adjustments. Think: how often do we grab some crackers and/ or cheese as a convenient on- the- go snack? As Moms just trying to get our kids out the door we turn to choices that we can pop in the diaper bag and that don’t require much thought/ prep. I know there’s options out there, but figuring out what she likes will take some trial & error (it’s been tough enough to find options for a grown man!). Keep in mind that I am very pro organic/ non- GMO, narrowing our options further & bumping up our food budget. I realize that’s a self- imposed choice, but again one made with the overall health of my family in mind.
The difference between allergies, sensitivities, & intolerances
With all of this new information swirling around in my head I’ve also been trying to differentiate between allergies, sensitivities, etc. Are they reversible? For life? What’s more severe/ serious? Can you get away with a little here & there or have to eliminate items completely? Here’s what I’ve been finding out: Sensitivities differ from allergies and age does play a factor in how the body reacts to allergens (younger children’s immune systems react differently as they ‘mature’ around the age of 2 years), meaning that if detected early, the damage caused by food sensitivities to the gut and immune system can be reversed rather than having them evolve into full- blown allergies with more adverse reactions. I can’t speak to how this may relate to Celiac disease & other similar auto- immune diseases triggered by foods we consume, but I feel there has to be a strong correlation.
To help better understand the difference between everything I Googled the heck out of the terms and found these definitions on the Health Canada website:
Food allergies: Sensitivities caused by a reaction of the body’s immune system to specific proteins in a food…
In allergic individuals, a food protein is mistakenly identified by the immune system as being harmful. The first time the individual is exposed to such a protein, the body’s immune system responds by creating antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). When the individual is exposed again to the same food protein, IgE antibodies and chemicals such as histamine are released. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can cause a reaction in the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system. In the most extreme cases, food allergies can be fatal. Although any food can provoke an immune response in allergic individuals, a few foods are responsible for the majority of food allergies.
A food intolerance: A food sensitivity that does not involve the individual’s immune system. Unlike food allergies, or chemical sensitivities, where a small amount of food can cause a reaction, it generally takes a more normal sized portion to produce symptoms of food intolerance. While the symptoms of food intolerance vary and can be mistaken for those of a food allergy, food intolerances are more likely to originate in the gastrointestinal system and are usually caused by an inability to digest or absorb certain foods, or components of those foods.
A food sensitivity: An adverse reaction to a food that other people can safely eat, and includes food allergies, food intolerances, and chemical sensitivities.
Are we allergic to food or what’s being done to it?
What has really bothered me in my research is the acknowledgement that food allergies are on the rise, but claims by large organizations (often linked to government & traditional medicinal channels) that there is no indication as to WHY. Please note that I’m not suggesting that allergies don’t exist outside of a simple reaction to a food that doesn’t agree with your body, but I feel that the vast majority of allergies today & the rising population suffering from allergies, etc goes a little deeper than simply what’s going in our mouths; it starts before that, with what’s happening to our food before it reaches our homes.
When I was a kid, sure there were peanut allergies, but kids with allergies seemed to be in the minority, now it seems that kids without allergies/ sensitivities are in the minority. People are increasingly facing allergies in their families and what’s heartbreaking/ scary is that more kids are developing allergies & sensitivities. BUT WHY? I know this is getting into messy territory but if you look at the most common allergies (wheat, soy, peanuts, etc) you’ll notice a few things: these are some of the largest, most- consumed crops in North America; they are heavily treated with pesticides; and they are among the most notorious GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops (and don’t forget about the increase in dairy allergies). Coincidence? Sorry, not buying it. You can’t tell me that allergies are somehow mysteriously on the rise at the same time that North Americans are consuming (knowingly & unknowingly) foods that are covered in harmful pesticides/ herbicides (read: poisonous chemicals) and/ or have been genetically altered. In this article I found, a UK study found that soy allergies increased 50% after the introduction of genetically modified soy. Hmmm…..
Natural vs organic
Since it’s becoming big business to claim food is ‘natural’, ‘organic’ etc, it’s important to note there are significant differences in these claims and you may be purchasing products you thought were free from pesticides, GMOs, etc because they claim to be ‘natural’. This is not the case. See the definitions of these terms below (from the American Society of Nutrition) to help you know what you’re really buying:
Natural: Without a formal definition of what “natural” means, let’s examine what this label does not mean. First of all, foods containing natural flavors, sweeteners, or other plant-derived substances can be labeled natural. In addition, foods containing highly processed high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can also be labeled “natural”, since the synthetic materials used to generate HFCS are not incorporated into the final product (2). Finally, foods containing genetically engineered or modified ingredients can be labeled “natural,” something California’s recently defeated Proposition 37 tried to prevent (3). Although far from an exhaustive list of what can be labeled a “natural” food, these are a few examples of how “natural” may mean something different than consumers think… Although consumers purchasing “natural” meat, poultry, and eggs can be confident that there are no artificial ingredients or colors added, it’s important to note that “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free; these are separate labels, also regulated by the USDA.
Organic: Foods with an organic seal are certified organic and contain at least 95% organic content (5). Organic food is produced using approved organic farming methods “that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Specifically, “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” to produce organic food, meaning that organic food products are not genetically modified and have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers (5). Use of the “organic” food label and seal is strictly regulated by the National Organic Program, which is administered through the USDA.
So what can you do?
If you or members of your family are facing health challenges or have noticed lingering health concerns that don’t seem to be clearing up, I encourage you to consider getting tested for food sensitivities & allergies instead of turning to the medicine cabinet. Different tests are carried out by naturopathic doctors vs traditional medical doctors, so make sure you do some research & find out what sounds most fitting based on your needs & symptoms.
Look at the food you’re eating
Raid your fridge & cupboards and examine what you’re putting in your mouth. Are you eating nutrient- dense food or is it highly processed? Natural vs organic? Are you unknowingly consuming foods containing GMO ingredients such as wheat & soy? Are they high in sugars? It’s important to note that even ‘healthy’ foods lose their nutritive advantage if they’re chock- full of sugar & other additivies, even if it’s organic/ natural, etc. Empty calories are still empty calories, no matter how fancy the packaging makes them look.
Do some research
If this is new to you I encourage you to do some research into GMOs, organic foods, etc and find out for yourself the importance of examining what your family is consuming. Is it easy to make these changes? Cheap? Unfortunately not always, but I can tell you from experience that it’s worth trying. It might mean making a cutback from somewhere else in your monthly budget, but think of it this way: if you don’t have your health and/ or if you’re unhappy, what enjoyment will that money & what it can buy bring you?
I hope this post offers some valuable information that will encourage you to continue on a healthy journey with your family or be the inspiration to start one.
Sources referred to in this post:
Most Common Food Allergens (& other info): Click here.
Allergy Facts & Statistics (US data): Click here. (This is the site that claims that there is “no clear answer as as to why” allergies are on the rise)
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