Is It Food Allergies or Just Picky Eating?

Do you avoid certain foods because you're a picky eater or is it because you're allergic to a food item? It can be difficult to tell the difference since the symptoms of food distaste/ intolerance and a true food allergy can appear very similar.

Navigating Food Allergies and Intolerances

An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that at least half of all Americans who think that they have a food allergy are mistaken. When they experience discomfort after eating or drinking certain foods, they assume that it must be caused by an immune system response-but in fact, the symptoms can be from something else. The possible reason why you may not like a particular food or experience symptoms after you eat it could either be due to a stomach irritation from the offending food, a lack of an enzyme needed to break down the food properly (as is the case with lactose intolerance), or sensitivity to an additive contained in the item (such as the sulfites in wine).

Challenges in Identifying Food Allergies

Some allergy skin tests and blood tests can provide misleading results. But these tests can identify the antibodies you've developed against the offending foods, which could be indicative of a food allergy. However, just because you have the antibodies doesn't mean your body will actually launch an immune system attack. So as a result, many people are counseled to avoid certain foods unnecessarily, which can put them at risk for nutritional deficiencies.

Ways to Identify If It's a Food Allergy or an Intolerance

Ask yourself these key questions:

  • Do you have an adverse reaction to the sight, smell, or taste of a food? Perhaps you've had a bad experience with it in the past and the thought of further contact brings on a strong physical response. If so, it's an intolerance and not a food allergy.
  • Does your reaction to a food occur immediately after you ingest it or are symptoms delayed for a while? Food allergies most often occur right after eating something you're allergic to, or within two hours. When the symptoms occur later than this, it's not a real food allergy.
  • Does eating a certain food cause a headache and/or make you feel very tired? If the answer is "yes," you probably have a food intolerance or sensitivity.

In the event that you're not sure whether you have a food intolerance or a real allergy, your doctor may reintroduce small amounts of the food in a controlled setting to see if it triggers a reaction. Don't try this at home, though, just in case you do have a problem.

If your doctor does confirm that you have a real food allergy, it's important to take the diagnosis seriously since some food allergies can be life threatening. People with food allergies must go to great lengths to steer clear of the food. Read labels when you shop to avoid purchasing something that has a harmful ingredient. Be ultra careful at restaurants or at someone's home to ensure you aren't exposed to your allergens. Finally, always carry an EpiPen® for emergencies.




"Coping with Food Allergies." NIH Medline Plus. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.

Mayo Clinic. "Food Allergies: Definition." Web. 9 Feb. 2012.

National Jewish Health. "Four Decades of Food Allergy Research." Web. 9 Feb. 2012.

Tara Parker-Pope. "Telling Food Allergies From False Alarms." New York Times, 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.