In a comment from one of our astute readers, the topic of food allergies came up. I was stumped. Maybe I’m not alone in trying to make sense of the very confusing information out there on the web and trying to apply it to my situation as a woman with a significant mobility limitation.
I went to the nutrition expert on our research team, Dr. Tracey Ledoux at the University of Houston’s Texas Obesity Research Center, and asked her some key questions. Here is what she said:
Q: What is a food allergy?
A: Food allergies are when your body’s immune system reacts to certain foods like eggs, peanuts, wheat, strawberries, shellfish. Symptoms of an allergy include hives, skin irritation (itchy, blotchy appearance), swelling around the point of ingestion (mouth, throat, lips), difficulty breathing, and/or tightness in throat, within 10-20 minutes after eating. Vomiting can also occur with allergic reactions to food. An allergy can start out mild and worsen over time, so if you are allergic to a food item it is best to avoid it altogether. Some people eventually develop severe allergic reactions to particular foods and need to carry a special shot (epi pen) of epinephrine (adrenaline) around with them in case they accidentally ingest the food to which they are allergic. Severe reactions are called anaphylactic syndrome and can be life threatening.
Q: What is the connection, if any, between food allergies and weight gain?
A: There is none. Weight gain occurs when energy consumed from food is used to build tissue. During times of growth (childhood, pregnancy) energy is used to build lean tissue (muscle, bone, organs), but without growth, excess energy intake is stored in adipose (fat) tissue. Food allergies do not cause weight gain. A reaction to consuming a food one is allergic to can cause temporary swelling but this is not permanent or part of permanent cell structures.
Q: What do you think might be the connection between food allergies and disabling conditions?
A: Food allergies are related to the immune system. Certainly disabling conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia, are related to the autoimmune system. Some research is going on, but we just don’t know yet what, if any, connection exists.
Q: What is the difference between food allergies and food intolerance?
A: Food intolerance refers to an inability or reduced ability of the gut to digest or absorb certain nutrients. As these nutrients pass through the gut undigested, the gut microflora of the colon feed on this source of nutrition. Some of the byproducts of gut bacteria feeding on undigested nutrients in the colon are gas and water which causes he person to experience gas, bloating, flatulence, soft or watery stool, diarrhea, etc. Individuals can have an intolerance for specific foods (e.g., gluten in wheat, lactose in milk, fructose in fruit) or have a medical condition that causes intolerance for a wide variety of foods (e.g., Crohn’s disease).
Q: Where can we go for good, reliable information on this confusing topic?
A: The website EatRight.org, by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, gives good information based on scientific evidence about food allergies and intolerances. I really don’t know any resources that have examined the connection between food allergies or intolerances and disabilities, especially those disabilities that are based on autoimmune diseases. Maybe that will be our next study!