A physical reaction to certain food is very common. You may feel bloated sometimes when you drink milk and this feeling is often thought to be a food allergy rather than a food intolerance. The symptoms can be similar but it is important to be able to differentiate between the two and not be confused. Let’s take a look.


A food intolerance is a problem in the digestive system, mainly your body being unable to digest a certain food. Causes of intolerance can range from serious chronic digestive illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease to something as simple as a lack of a digestive enzyme or stress. People with a food intolerance can sometimes eat small amounts of the food without having major problems. Examples of common food intolerances are lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity in people with coeliac disease.

A food allergy however is an immune response to food. The body sees certain food (for example the proteins in peanuts) as an invader and the body mounts an immune response to protect the body (from the peanut proteins). Unlike an intolerance to food, a food allergy can cause a serious or even life-threatening reaction by only eating a microscopic amount, touching or inhaling the food. Foods that are most common allergens include, peanuts and or tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans and almonds), fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, soy, wheat.


When you have an intolerance, because your stomach can not fully breakdown the food, the food irritates your stomach and you may have the following symptoms

  • Bloating, gas or cramps
  • Heartburn
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhoea or constipation

In the case of food allergy your immune system takes over as it attacks the food. An immune response can affect your whole body, not just your stomach. Symptoms may include:

  • Itchy skin, rash or hives
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing – this is life-threatening (seek medical attention urgently).

In the case of food intolerance you may be able to consume small amounts of the offending food without causing symptoms. For these cases there are also many food items available that have partially digested common intolerance foods such as low lactose milk or cheese. In the case of an enzyme deficiency you can take enzyme pills before eating the offending food. Food intolerances are not as dangerous so you can figure out for yourself how much of the food you can manage . With a food allergy it is very important to be sure of the exact food causing the reaction. This can be done guided by a medical practitioner, using lab tests or food elimination diets. Once it is established which foods you are allergic to, it is important to stay away from those foods. It is important to remember that the offending food can sometimes be present in different forms, such as peanuts in baked goods, so always read food labels.

Be aware of the symptoms that you experience when you eat certain foods so that you can seek the correct treatment for your allergy or intolerance. Knowing the difference can save you from numerous visits to the doctor, unnecessary food elimination and could possibly save your life.