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Recently, in a discussion with someone at church, we were talking about migraine triggers. I have numerous seasonal allergies and recently discovered that I have a plethora of food intolerances as well. I’ve always known that I was lactose intolerant but since having my youngest? Things have changed.

But how do you tell the difference between food allergies and food intolerance?

There are plenty of similarities but also several key differences.

Food allergies and food intolerance seem very similar. And while there are similarities, here are a few ways to tell the difference between food allergies and food intolerance.

There are thousands to millions of people who believe that they have food allergies when in fact, they actually just have body intolerance to certain types of food.

So how do you know when you have a food allergy rather than just intolerance to food?

The Key Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

The answer lies in your body’s immunological response. When your body thinks that a foreign invader is present, it will produce antibodies which release chemicals such as histamines to combat them.


If you were allergic to a particular food like shellfish, peanuts or milk, an allergic reaction would manifest itself via hives, swelling, and redness, breathing difficulties, runny nose and more.


For the most part, food intolerance does not trigger any immunological response but rather a simple reaction in the gastrointestinal tract.

Food intolerance and food allergies are similar in that they both can cause digestive issues along with other symptoms such as headaches, foggy mental clarity and even low energy levels. For me, I have some food triggered migraines.

However, the difference lies in other symptoms that occur in food allergy sufferers over people who are food intolerant. The allergy sufferers may have the telltale hives, rash, swelling and even wheezing.

Another disparity is the fact food allergy sufferers could slip into anaphylactic shock if their reactions were severe enough. With food intolerance, the food culprit eventually leaves the body and you are back to normal.

Now there are a few health conditions like celiac disease which is sometimes called a type of food allergy when it fact it relates to food intolerance. Celiac sufferers have problems with the proteins found in wheat, barley and rye.

If it were an allergic reaction, the body would produce histamines to combat the proteins but it does not. Therefore, the disease is grouped with food intolerance.

Food allergy and food intolerance seem very similar and may share some similarities. But, would you know the difference between food allergies and food intolerance?

How does your body tell the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?

One way to distinguish between the symptoms of food allergy and food intolerance is to look for the cause of the symptoms.

Food symptoms can have different causes including:

food poisoning, a histamine toxicity, being lactose intolerant, reacting to food additives, reacting to sulfites, having a gluten intolerance, and also psychological triggers.

Other medical causes can also be having an ulcer or cancers of the GI tract.

Sometimes food manufacturers add products to enhance taste, color or to protect against microorganisms.

These substances that are added are compounds that may cause an adverse reaction in some individuals. A common substance in this category is MSG, and sulfites, and food coloring.

Sulfites can actually occur naturally in certain food items or they can be added to prevent mold growth or to hold crispness longer. Individuals with asthma may inhale the gas that sulfites give off and then have an asthma attack.

Food additives can also cause headaches, facial pressure, chest pain, and also feelings of detachment in some individuals, flushing or a feeling of warmth. These are adverse reactions to the substances added to the food and not an allergic reaction to the food itself.

Food intolerance is treated by dietary avoidance. Once a patient and their doctor have identified the food to which the patient is sensitive, the food must be removed completely from their diet.

True food allergies are those reactions that occur as a result of the immune system response to a specific food or food protein when that item is ingested.

Any food item can cause an allergic reaction within the immune system. Approximately 12 million Americans have food allergies. Up to 8% of children have food allergies and approximately 2% of adults have food allergies.

So what is that key difference between food allergies and food intolerance?

Your body’s immune system.

True food allergies will trigger a response from your body’s immune system. And while you may have some sort of reaction with a food intolerance? It’s not a direct response to the food but could be a response to a substance that was added to the food.

Talk with your doctor if you suspect a food intolerance or food allergy. Be prepared to make some dietary changes. But, rest assured, it’s all for the best.

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Digital Product Creator at Kori at Home
Kori is a late diagnosed autistic/ADHD mom. She is currently located in Albany, NY where she is raising a neurodiverse family. Her older daughter is non-speaking autistic (and also has ADHD and Anxiety) and her youngest daughter is HSP/Gifted. A blogger, podcaster, writer, product creator, and coach; Kori shares autism family life- the highs, lows, messy, and real. Kori brings her own life experiences as an autistic woman combined with her adventures in momming to bring you the day-to-day of her life at home. Kori is on a mission to empower moms of autistic children to make informed parenting decisions with confidence and conviction.

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J. Ivy Boyter
6 years ago

So, I can’t have almonds, gluten, and dairy (to name a few things) because of serious intolerance … I promise you, it may seem like a “simple” digestive issue, but they each create very disturbing problems for me. Gluten will knock me out and render me useless for about a day, almonds make me tired (though not to the same extent as gluten) and dairy upsets my stomach and gives me sinus problems. I may have read this wrong, but I feel like you suggest a food intolerance isn’t very concerning. I can assure you, as a mother of two… Read more »