Entering a potluck with an allergy is like walking through a minefield. From nuts and dairy to seafood, it can be impossible to tell what’s in that mystery casserole that some of us would pile on our plates without a second thought.
Now, maybe you’re one of the lucky few who don’t have to worry about avoiding common food allergies — but as new cases of food allergies and intolerances become more common, even among adults, it’s possible that you’ll wake up one day and find your body treating your favorite food like the enemy. Here’s what you should know if you think you may have an allergy or intolerance to certain food items.
What Are Food Allergies?
Food allergies occur when your body mistakes food you ingest for something harmful, triggering a response that causes the immune system to attack the proteins contained in these foods. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, 32 million Americans have food allergies.
Allergic reactions range from mild — watery eyes, an itchy throat or hives — to life-threatening. For instance, anaphylaxis can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, stomach pain, diarrhea and swelling of the throat. When anaphylaxis makes an appearance, staying alive can come down to how soon you receive emergency treatment.
What Is a Food Intolerance?
Unlike allergies, food intolerances generally cause digestive problems rather than an immune response. If you have a food intolerance, you can probably eat the particular food in small amounts without having a reaction.
A range of issues can cause food intolerances, including an enzyme deficiency that makes it more difficult to digest the food, sensitivity to food additives like sulfites that tend to show up in processed foods and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. The most common food intolerances probably already on your radar include lactose intolerance, which makes it difficult for some people to digest dairy, and celiac disease, which occurs when the body has difficulty digesting wheat gluten, which is found in barley, rye and wheat.
Why Are These Conditions on the Rise?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of food allergies increased 18 percent over a 10-year period from 1997 to 2007. The number of children hospitalized with food allergies also tripled over a similar 10-year period. Food intolerance may be growing even faster. One report predicts that the gluten-free product market is set to climb from $4.72 billion in 2017 to $7.6 billion by 2024.
Researchers don’t know for sure why these conditions are on the rise, but some have suggested that it may be related to the Western diet as well as to environmental and lifestyle factors like pollution and dietary changes that affect the body’s immune response. Another theory is the so-called hygiene hypothesis — that minimized exposure to germs in early childhood affects the body’s defenses and causes the immune system to mistake proteins in food for something harmful.
Whatever the reason, if you think you or your child might have a food intolerance or one of the common food allergies, visit an allergist to get tested and find out for sure. Once you’re diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe epinephrine so you have a defense against anaphylactic shock on hand. But as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to prevent an allergic reaction or intolerance is to avoid the food that triggers it in the first place.