Kids & Problem Foods: Is it an Allergy or Intolerance?

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

If you’re a parent to a young child, allergies are on your radar. Forget packing a PB&J sandwich for lunch—most schools have become nut free. And it extends beyond the classroom. I recently boarded a plane that prohibited peanuts due to a passenger’s severe allergies. While this can be an inconvenience for those who have to pitch their granola bars, for the person with the allergy, it can be lifesaving.

Kids & Food Problems: How to Tell if it's an Allergy or Intolerance

In the last 15 years, the prevalence of food allergies has increased 18 percent among children. Unfortunately, children with allergies are also more apt to have other related conditions, including asthma. But what qualifies as an actual allergy, and what’s a mere intolerance?

An allergy is mediated by an immunoglobin-E (IgE) reaction and can cause classic symptoms like hives, swelling and difficulty breathing. An intolerance, on the other hand, can trigger reactions like digestive disturbances, headache or irritability. Infants and young children are more likely to develop food allergies due to their developing systems.

The Big Eight

Eight major food offenders trigger 90 percent of allergies:

  • Milk
  • Egg
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish

If you or your child experiences allergy symptoms (hives, tingling in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, eczema/rash, coughing/wheezing, dizziness or loss of consciousness) after coming in contact with these foods, call your doctor immediately or head to the ER for severe reactions.

Food, Moods & Inflammation

Intolerances tend to have more subtle and delayed reactions. Foods typically linked to intolerances include wheat, gluten, corn, dairy, sugar and alcohol. Food sensitivities increase inflammation in the body, which can cause short-term problems such as joint pain and headaches. Over time, they can increase the risk of certain cancers, autoimmune conditions and cardiovascular disease, says Peter Swanz, ND, a Naturopathic physician in North Carolina.

“On a very subtle level, food sensitivities increase blood pressure and will often create digestive disturbances such as bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea and the inability to shed excess weight,” he adds. Often times, we don’t recognize an intolerance until we keep a food diary or when we eliminate the food from our diet, says Judy Fulop, ND.

Children often exhibit behavioral changes when they have food intolerances. Food sensitivities and intolerances have been linked to poor concentration and focus, as well as hyperactivity and obsessive compulsive tendencies. “Children on the autism spectrum can have enormous gains in speech and behavior aspects simply by cutting out grains and dairy,” Swanz says.

Everyone has some level of food sensitivity, according to Swanz. He adds that food intolerances and sensitivities have increased over the last few decades, in part due to the amount of processed food we eat. Fulop agrees, sharing her belief that foods that are natural and organic are less likely to cause inflammatory conditions.

Next Steps

If you suspect your child may have food intolerances, be on the lookout for “allergic shiners” around the eyes, drowsiness after eating, fatigue, chronic headaches and stomach aches, Fulop cautions. Start by cutting out the most common culprits—wheat, gluten, corn, soy and dairy. After three weeks of a diet free of trigger foods, slowly try incorporating one food at a time for five days. Notice if there are any symptoms, either gross or subtle. Sometimes even the aggravating foods can be added back to the diet and “tolerated” once the body is free of inflammation, says Fulop.

If you’re concerned about a food allergy, however, you’ll need to see a specialist for testing, and then eliminate the trigger food from the diet entirely.

Whether a food intolerance or an allergy, Swanz suggests looking for ways to support healthy inflammatory processes in the body, such as supplementing with a high-quality fish oil providing at least 500 mg of omega-3 EPA daily (not compatible with fish allergies, obviously). Probiotics added to the diet may also support overall intestinal health.*

And although allergies are challenging and scary, the good news is that many children outgrow them. In fact, some reports suggest that 80 to 90 percent of allergies are outgrown by the time a child reaches the age of 3. Shellfish and peanut allergies are the most likely to linger into adulthood.

What’s the take-home from this? Our diet matters, whether or not we have allergies, intolerances or just occasional stomach aches. When it comes to our children, we have to be their eyes and let their behaviors and physical complaints act as a mirror, reflecting from the inside-out.