Nowadays, it seems like every ache, pain, and upset stomach can be attributed to a food sensitivity. Maybe your best friend has suddenly developed an intolerance to gluten, and she just knows that ditching bread altogether and switching to chickpea pasta is curing her digestive issues. Or maybe that health coach you follow on Instagram is explaining exactly why she gave up soy and said goodbye to tofu and certain mock meats. Perhaps you heard someone mention that they just can’t have nightshades anymore, and the thought of life without potatoes made you shudder.
When it comes to food sensitivities, you don’t even need to see a doctor to find out if you have one—you can just take an easy at-home test, right? These tests have become quite popular, even though they’re also pretty expensive. But isn’t the high price worth it for your health?
Maybe, but the evidence on their accuracy isn’t very solid. First, it’s important to discuss the difference between food allergies and food sensitivities. A food allergy results in an anaphylactic reaction—hives, trouble breathing, vomiting, and other frightening symptoms. If someone with a food allergy consumes something they are allergic to, they need immediate medical attention, and they will typically carry an EpiPen just in case. Going into anaphylaxis can be fatal.
On the other hand, a food sensitivity (or intolerance, as it might be called—both terms refer to the same thing) is a gastrointestinal issue. Eating food you’re sensitive to might cause cramps, headaches, bloating, other digestive problems, or even acne. Yes, this can be very uncomfortable, and depending on the severity, it can contribute to chronic health issues. For example, someone with Celiac’s disease can permanently damage their small intestine if they eat too much gluten. But consuming something you’re sensitive to won’t require a visit to the emergency room or the use of an EpiPen.
In short, a food allergy is an immune system response, while a food sensitivity means that your digestive system can’t process whatever you’re eating. But that’s where the problem arises—food sensitivity tests actually look at your immune response to a given food.
A food sensitivity test (officially known as an IgG test) measures the food-specific immunoglobulin that your body produces. You might think that having a significant immune response to a certain food means that your body can’t handle it, right? Well, not quite. We actually produce more IgG antibodies to foods that we eat on a regular basis! So if a food sensitivity test shows that you produce more IgG antibodies after eating, say, bread, it could just mean that you eat bread a few times a week, or that you ate bread recently.
Overall, testing for sensitivities or food allergies can be tricky. For example, the standard blood test to check for a food allergy is an IgE test, but those are also notoriously inaccurate, and they don’t always tell the whole story. So, what can you do if you suspect that a certain food is causing you some unwanted symptoms? There’s a solution—and the good news is that it’s much cheaper than a food sensitivity test.
Keep a food diary for four to six weeks and write down what you’ve eaten right after you eat it, and how you feel. Notice any patterns after a couple of weeks? Then it’s time to try a carefully planned elimination diet. Go cold turkey on the food you suspect is causing your issues, and continue to record what you eat and any symptoms you experience. If the problem clears up, then you’ve found the culprit! Test one food at a time so you get a clear answer on what’s behind your symptoms.
If you can, you will probably want to work with a dietitian while figuring out your sensitivity. And it’s very important to make sure you’re still getting all of the nutrients you need while you’re on an elimination diet, so you might want to take a multivitamin just in case.
The main problem with the current popularity of food sensitivity tests? It’s easy to look at your results and develop a lot of anxiety over your eating habits. You might be nervous to go out to eat or try something new at a party, wondering if it contains something you’re supposedly sensitive to. And you might end up cutting out nutritious foods for no real reason! When in doubt, keep a food diary and talk to a dietitian—you’ll get a much more accurate and useful diagnosis.
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