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How to tell if your bloating or stomach upset is caused by an intolerance or allergy to food.

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Ever have one of those days when your stomach feels lousy? It could be caused by something you ate that didn’t taste quite right. But if you often find yourself feeling sick after eating, there’s most likely another cause. One possibility is that you have a food allergy or intolerance.

Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Food intolerances are much more common than food allergies, but the latter can be more dangerous. The types of symptoms you have can vary, ranging from mild to severe.

If you have a food intolerance, you’ll likely experience gastrointestinal discomfort after consuming the problem food. Symptoms most commonly include:

    • Abdominal pain
    • Gas
    • Diarrhea
    • Nausea/Vomiting

Signs of a food allergy may include the above symptoms, as well as:

    • Tingling in the mouth
    • Hives, itching or eczema
    • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue or throat
    • Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
    • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting

With food intolerances, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without a reaction or with only very mild symptoms. If you have a food allergy, the food should be avoided completely because it may cause serious or even life-threatening reactions.

Common Food Allergies and Intolerances

Almost any type of food may cause a reaction, but here are the most common food intolerances:

    • Lactose: This common food intolerance affects 1 in 10 people. If your body doesn’t produce enough lactase, which breaks down a type of sugar in dairy products, the digestive system reacts. Common symptoms include bloating, stomach pain and diarrhea.
    • Gluten: If you feel tired, nauseous or bloated after eating foods containing wheat, barley or rye, you may have a gluten intolerance. Gluten is in lots of foods and drinks and even some medications. A gluten intolerance will not cause permanent damage to your body but symptoms may be similar to celiac disease.
    • Eggs: Egg whites or yolks are also a common food intolerance. Symptoms are typically more digestive in nature and may include bloating, nausea, cramps or diarrhea. Eggs can be hidden in many foods, including mayonnaise, ice cream, meatballs and canned soups.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you experience gastrointestinal distress after eating particular foods, see a doctor to determine if you have a food allergy and to narrow down what food is causing symptoms.

You may have to keep a food diary to pinpoint what you have eaten when you have a reaction. An elimination diet may be recommended to see if your symptoms go away after avoiding suspect foods. Your doctor may also suggest an allergy test to determine if you have an actual allergy to a particular food. This test is done in a controlled environment in case you have a severe allergic reaction.

If you are diagnosed with a food allergy, the best course of action is to avoid that food altogether. Even if you only have a food intolerance, not eating the suspect food can help reduce uncomfortable symptoms. Be especially careful with processed foods or meals prepared outside the home. Read food labels carefully to make sure the culprit food isn’t contained anywhere on the label (it may be listed with an unfamiliar name).

Allergic reactions to food can be severe or even life threatening. If you suspect a food allergy, it’s important to see a doctor and get a proper diagnosis right away.

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Date Last Reviewed: March 18, 2022

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Dietary Review: Jane Schwartz, RD

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