Understanding food allergies and food intolerance

Most children develop food intolerance and food allergies within the first 2 years of life, which is a critical period of growth and development. Several of the most common food allergens are foods that include a major portion of a developing child’s diet providing essential nutrients.

A food intolerance means either the body has a difficulty digesting the food that is eaten, or that a particular food may cause irritation in the digestive system. In general, children who have a food intolerance tend to experience: tummy pain, bloating, wind and/or diarrhoea, or skin rashes and itching. These symptoms usually come on a few hours after eating the food. On the other hand, a food allergy interferes with the immune system, wherein the body identifies food, as an invader and sparks a reaction. This affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms such as breathing problems, throat tightness, hoarseness, coughing, vomiting, abdominal pain, hives, swelling, or a drop-in blood pressure. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening.

If your child has a reaction after eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you he or she has a food intolerance or a food allergy. If it is a food intolerance, he or she may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble. With food intolerance, your doctor may recommend food elimination or steps to help digestion of certain foods or to treat the underlying condition causing your reaction.

The following are the most common sources of food sensitivities:

  • Lactose intolerance. In lactose intolerance, the body cannot digest lactose (milk sugar) found in milk and milk products. Normally, the enzyme lactase present in the body breaks down lactose.

  • Gluten intolerance.  In gluten intolerance, the body cannot digest gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is so widespread, it can be difficult to avoid. It’s found in baked goods, cereals, processed foods, spreads, canned foods, sauces, condiments, and many sweet treats. A numerous of gluten-free alternatives are available, however they contain several additives, that are often high in calories, and can upset blood sugar balance.

  • Egg A common sensitivity, egg intolerance or allergy affects nearly 1.5% of children. In most cases. Most people that suffer from the intolerance cannot handle the egg white, while they may have no issues with the yolk. Sensitivity to soy maybe an underlying condition, as chickens are fed on a soy based diet.

  • Soy can cause gastrointestinal irritation in those who are sensitive. However, it can also cause irritability or depressed mood, along with headaches. Infants who are soy intolerant can experience reflux caused by soy-based formula or foods. Check labels for terms like hydrogenated oils, vegetable starch, lecithin, emulsifiers, and hydrolyzed plant protein.

  • Corn proteins can irritate the gastrointestinal tract of people who are also intolerant to gluten and other grains, so if your child has symptoms that haven’t stopped after cutting out wheat and/or all gluten, consider dropping corn for a while.

  • Chemicals, Pesticides and Additives in Foods: Because much of the food we consume today has been treated with pesticides and other chemicals, or is loaded with artificial flavourings, colourings, and sweeteners, it’s difficult to isolate the source of intolerance.

Dietary fats provide a concentrated source of energy, and diets that are too low in fat are at risk of being hypocaloric, leading to poor growth. Protein deficient diets can also cause poor growth and protein deficient related morbidity. Foods such as milk, egg, and soy are important sources of protein and fat, thus avoidance diets should be carefully planned to make sure that protein and fat requirements are met.  Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Each food contributes specific micronutrients, and when a food or food group is eliminated without adequate substitution or supplementation, micronutrient deficiencies can occur. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies have been associated with food elimination diets. In these cases, correcting any deficiencies through vitamin and/or mineral supplementation should improve outcomes and possibly reduce the incidence of any deficiency-related allergies.



Mayo Clinic. Food allergy vs. food intolerance: What's the difference? © 1998-2017 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved.

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