The difference between food allergies and food intolerances, and why some may be over-diagnosing their condition –
The UK is one of the top three countries in the world for allergy incidents. New Zealand and Australia are the other two
Up to 8% of children and 2% of adults are diagnosed with a food allergy
A child has a 60% chance of developing an allergy if their mother suffers from one – or an 80% chance if both parents have allergies
A food allergy is a serious, often life-threatening reaction to a particular food that involves the immune system. Food intolerance is less serious causing vaguer, more general symptoms.
The two are often confused, says Dr Robbie Foy, professor of primary health care at Leeds University.
“Allergy is meant to mean your autoimmune response being overactive, which is slightly different from areas like food intolerance, where some foods just don’t suit people – and that causes some of this blurring of boundaries.”
A large increase in the number of children admitted to hospital with severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) – a 700% rise between 1990 and 2004 – was highlighted in recent guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Health and Excellence (NICE).
But evidence for the growth in food intolerance is a lot less clear.
Experts believe too many people are self-diagnosing and altering their diets to leave out important food groups in the belief they are sufferers without real evidence or informed help.
Kristian Bravin says sometimes allergies to foods like prawns develop in later life
“We get people coming to the clinic with severely restricted diets,” says Kristian Bravin, senior dietitian at University Hospital in Leicester. “We have to be careful they don’t avoid more and more food.” That can lead to a diet deficient in key vitamins or minerals.
He says while 20% of the population believe they have a problem “the reality is much smaller than that”. He says the numbers actually suffering from a food allergy are probably closer to between 1-2% of adults, and 4-6% of children.
While a nut allergy, for instance, is relatively easy to define with a blood test. Food intolerance is far more difficult to diagnose.
And GPs are not trained to spot food allergies or intolerances. There is probably a lot of under- and overdiagnosis going on, believes Dr Foy.
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