It can be a nightmare trying to figure out the difference between a food allergy, food intolerance and food sensitivity. When my boyfriend was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I usually lapsed to telling people he was simply allergic to gluten, because it was easier to understand. The truth is, there is a wide range of severity in negative reactions to certain foods or ingredients.

So what’s the difference?Peanut

Food Allergies

Food allergies are the most obvious. Reaction symptoms usually include a significant autoimmune response like anaphylaxis: hives, swelling, fainting, difficulty breathing or swallowing, vomiting and all that good stuff. Without epinephrine (think EpiPen®), allergies can be immediately fatal for some. Some of the most common food allergies include peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is the next step down. While not immediately life threatening, consuming food you are intolerant to over a period of time can cause lymphoma, intestinal cancers and even epilepsy for those with celiac disease. Intolerance might not include the histamine reaction seen with allergies, but usually still causes immediate discomfort. Someone who is lactose intolerant will pretty quickly get some unsavory digestive tract issues. Being unable to tolerate lactose means your body doesn’t produce any or doesn’t produce enough of the enzyme called lactase.


Diagram of a villus (villi plural)

For celiac sufferers, their disease is actually an autoimmune disorder. Consuming gluten leads to an immune response in the small intestine, causing damage to the villi (picture little hairs that grab nutrients from passing food) that can result in permanent inability to get nutrients from their foods.

Intolerances aren’t limited to dairy and gluten. Some people are truly intolerant to alcohol and can immediately show symptoms of rash, headache, runny nose and others. Intolerances can even include some meat, fish, vegetables and just about every other type of food out there. Everyone’s body is different!

Food Sensitivity

Food sensitivity is often the subtlest type on the list. Food sensitivities are often misdiagnosed and difficult to pinpoint without some serious guess-and-check method. Over the course of your life, your sensitivity to various foods and drinks will fluctuate. For instance, many babies are unable to process certain foods until years later.

Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity—All of the above make baby sadIt is speculated that a wide percentage of the population is actually gluten-sensitive, though the exact number is widely disputed. Doing a quick Google search will lead you down the rabbit hole of experts claiming vastly different numbers. Either way, this explains why you may have encountered someone who swears that quitting gluten has changed his or her life. Avoiding gluten could certainly have an impact on overall health and well-being.

Regardless, if you suspect you may have an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, be sure to see a doctor!