Coping with food allergies and sensitivities

Are you concerned about food allergies? You’re not alone since 1-in-2 Canadians know someone with a food allergy – which also means that this condition has broad impact across the country. As a registered dietitian and nutritionist I often get questions about how to manage food allergies and sensitivities to stay safe and eat well. People working in restaurants and other food businesses are also keen to stay up to date and vigilant on this important issue. Here are some top tips to help you get started on coping with food allergies and sensitivities.

What is a food allergy?

A true food allergy triggers the body’s disease fighting system into action. This usually occurs when a food protein or other compound is recognized by the body as a threat. The body releases antibodies and histamine to fight back. Symptoms vary and can involve multiple body systems such as skin, the gut and breathing. While common symptoms include swelling of the lips or tongue, in some people life threatening food allergy reaction called anaphylactic shock can result.

Did you know that only 8 to 10 foods are responsible for 90% of all food allergic reactions? This is why we talk about the top priority allergens. For example normally wholesome foods including eggs, milk, seafood, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soybeans (and soy products) may cause life threatening symptoms in people with allergies. If a food contains a priority allergen this must be shown on the food label.

The most important message to remember is that food allergies can cause serious illness and even death and can’t be taken lightly. The only way to avoid an allergic reaction is to COMPLETELY AVOID the offending allergen. It’s also important to note that cooking or freezing does NOT remove an allergen.

What is food intolerance?

Food intolerance implies a negative reaction to a specific food but it DOES NOT involve the immune system. This is an important difference because intolerances and allergies may prompt many of the same symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps,) and food intolerances are often mislabelled as allergies. The symptoms of food intolerance are generally localized in the gut and can be quite painful and uncomfortable, but they are NON – allergic and NOT-DEADLY.

An example of food intolerance is when someone can’t properly digest the sugar in milk due to a lactase deficiency; or can’t tolerate gluten due to celiac disease. Certain foods and spices may trigger cramping, diarrhea or constipation especially in people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Depending on the type of intolerance, many people may be able to eat SMALL amounts of the problem food without unpleasant side effects. In Canada sources of gluten and sulphites must be clearly indicated on food labels.

Living with food allergies and

Living with allergies and food sensitivities can be challenging, stressful and even life-changing for people and their families. Limiting and restricting many foods over time could also affect nutrient intake and may cause deficiencies. This is why nutrition monitoring and education are important for people living with allergies and intolerances. Registered Dietitians are trained health professionals who can help people living with food allergies. Some of the important skills a dietitian can help with include:

  • Identifying troublesome foods and ingredients
  • Reading food labels – what to avoid keeping the reactions at bay
  • Listing food & beverage substitutes to replace the offending food
  • Creating an allergen- friendly diet and meal plan
  • Cooking with recipes that are free of the offending allergen

In foodservice operations dietitians guide and certify professionals in allergy awareness and standards of practice to help chefs provide safe food for people and their families. We work closely with clients to help them navigate the new labelling requirements for food allergies and sensitivities.

As dietitians we are experts at translating the science to help families and food professionals navigate the tricky field of food allergies. Contact us with your questions! We’re ready to help.