top of page

Decoding Food Reactions: Allergy, Sensitivity, or Intolerance?

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Hives on neck

Have you ever found yourself confused about the terms used to describe adverse reactions to certain foods? The distinctions between food allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance often get muddled in everyday conversations. It’s time to decode these terms and understand the crucial differences that exist between them.

Understanding the Basics

At the heart of the matter lies the body's response to specific food components. When we talk about food allergies and sensitivities, the immune system plays a pivotal role, whereas food intolerance does not involve immune activation.


True food allergies and food sensitivities are immune mediated,

food intolerance does not involve immune activation.


True Food Allergy

Let’s start with true food allergies. These reactions involve the immune system's exaggerated response to harmless food proteins. This heightened immune reaction, mediated by Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, can trigger severe symptoms, including anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening situation.

Key points about true food allergies:

  • Immediate onset of symptoms (within minutes to 2 hours) after consuming the allergen.

  • Symptoms might range from mild, like tingling or itching, to severe, such as swelling of the throat or difficulty breathing.

  • Common allergens include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy.

  • Treatment often requires immediate administration of epinephrine (EpiPen) and emergency medical care.


8 Most common food allergies:

Cow’s milk, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, Brazil nuts), shellfish, fish, soy, eggs, wheat



Food allergy in pictures
Food allergy in pictures


Food Sensitivity

In contrast, food sensitivities involve the immune system but typically manifest with delayed reactions and are less severe. These reactions usually affect the gastrointestinal system and may cause symptoms like digestive issues, fatigue, headaches, or skin rashes.

Key points about food sensitivities:

  • Symptoms might take up to 72 hours to appear after consuming the trigger food.

  • Manifestations include digestive problems, headaches, fatigue, or skin-related issues like eczema.

  • Keeping a food journal or following an elimination diet can help identify and manage sensitivities.


Most common food sensitivities:

Gluten (wheat), casein (milk), albumin (egg), soy, nightshades (tomato, eggplant, potato, peppers), lectins (beans, lentils, nightshades)



Food sensitivity in pictures
Food sensitivity in pictures


Food Intolerance

Food intolerance, unlike allergies or sensitivities, doesn’t trigger an immune response. Instead, it occurs due to the body's inability to digest certain foods or react to food components, resulting in digestive discomfort.

Key points about food intolerance:

  • Typically presents as digestive issues like bloating, cramps, or diarrhea.

  • The reaction is non-immune-mediated and usually delayed.

  • Enzyme deficiencies or adverse reactions to food components can cause intolerance.


3 Most common types of intolerance:

Lactose (in milk and dairy products), gluten (wheat, barley and rye), FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols - wheat, onions, garlic, apples...)



Food intolerance in pictures
Food intolerance in pictures

Navigating Food Reactions

Understanding these distinctions is crucial for managing one's diet and health effectively, especially considering the potential long-term effects these reactions can have on the body.

Strategies for Managing Reactions

  • Identify Trigger Foods: While tests exist, they might not always provide reliable results. Identifying and avoiding trigger foods is the most effective approach.

  • Maintain a Food Journal: Especially useful for intolerances and sensitivities, tracking food intake and symptoms can aid in pinpointing problematic foods.

  • Prioritize Gut Health: A diverse gut microbiome supports better tolerance. Aim for a varied, plant-based diet to nurture a healthy gut.


Distinguishing between food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances empowers individuals to take control of their health. By recognizing the body's different responses to various foods, one can make informed dietary choices and mitigate potential health risks associated with adverse reactions.

Remember, consulting healthcare professionals for proper diagnosis and management is crucial in dealing with food-related issues. Awareness and informed choices pave the way for a healthier relationship with food and overall well-being.

Ready to Take the First Step?

Request a Free, No-obligation 15-Minute Discovery Call to See if This Is For You
bottom of page