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Study Finds That Only Half of People Who Believe They Have Food Allergies Actually Do

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Paige Wyant, The Mighty’s chronic illness editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

A new JAMA study published on Friday revealed that only half of American adults who believe they have a food allergy actually do.

In a survey of 40,443 people over the age of 18, approximately 19 percent reported they had a food allergy. Researchers broke these allergies down into two groups: “convincing” and “unconvincing” food allergies. A reported allergy was considered “convincing” if it was diagnosed by a physician, and that their most severe reaction to the food included at least one symptom on the survey’s expert panel’s “stringent symptom list.”

The stringent symptoms highlighted included:

  • Hives
  • Swelling (except lip/tongue swelling)
  • Lip/tongue swelling
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Throat tightening
  • Chest tightening
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fainting, dizziness or feeling light-headed
  • Low blood pressure

Overall, researchers estimated that 10.8 percent of U.S. adults have a food allergy, with the most commonly reported allergies being shellfish, peanut, milk, tree nut and finfish.

The study concluded that approximately half of those who think they have a food allergy really don’t – which means 10 percent of adults are unnecessarily avoiding certain foods and altering their diet and lifestyle for no reason, right?

Not exactly.

All week I have seen coverage of this study celebrate that so many people who thought they had food allergies will now be able to eat these foods and return to a “normal” lifestyle. Apparently, if you don’t have an allergy, you must be totally fine!

Although fewer adults may have food allergies than we initially thought, that doesn’t mean the study necessarily comes as “good news” for those who mistakenly believed they had food allergies.

Between food allergies and not having any reaction to food lies a spectrum of people with various issues pertaining to food. Even more common than food allergies are food intolerances, which can also result in painful or uncomfortable symptoms. Food allergies are caused by an immune response, which can trigger symptoms in your respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system. Food intolerances can arise for a number of reasons but primarily affect the GI tract. Food intolerances can cause serious and painful symptoms, they are not typically fatal. An allergy, on the other hand, can range from mild to severe and sometimes result in anaphylaxis – a potentially fatal allergic reaction involving a sudden drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and body system failure.

While food allergies can have more serious consequences, we shouldn’t overlook or trivialize the impact of food intolerances. Those who have experienced nausea, stomach pain, gas, cramps, heartburn or diarrhea after eating food they don’t tolerate know just how much those symptoms can interfere with your day.

For many others in the chronic illness community, myself included, certain foods can “trigger” symptoms. I know that for me, drinking a glass of red wine is almost guaranteed to bring on a migraine attack, and eating too much refined sugar will make my joints even stiffer and achier than they already are. Just because I don’t have an allergy to those foods doesn’t mean they’re OK for me to eat.

It is important to remember that the 10 percent of adult Americans who are mistaken about having an allergy still experience symptoms after eating certain foods, and may have a food intolerance or other serious health condition.

Dismissing those who have food intolerances or dietary restrictions is, unfortunately, nothing new. How many have had well-meaning loved ones offer them food that’s off-limits, saying, “Just try it! One bite won’t kill you!” or struggled to have a restaurant prepare food that meets your needs?

Even those with food allergies often have their needs judged or brushed off. For instance, we’ve seen Kevin James joke about his disdain for people with food allergies in his Netflix special and comedian John Christ share offensive posts about food allergies on his Instagram. Just last week, reality star Bethenny Frankel was shamed for her fish allergy on a flight.

All types of dietary issues need to be taken seriously. We need to recognize the significant effects that both allergies and intolerances can have on a person’s life. If folks undergo allergy testing following this study and discover that they don’t actually have a food allergy, they still deserve to be treated with compassion and have their dietary needs respected.

It’s also important, however, that we promote a better understanding of the differences between food allergies and intolerances.

The disparity between the number of people who have food allergies and the number of people who think they have food allergies reveals a fundamental lack of understanding surrounding the different types of reactions to food. It can not only be helpful, but lifesaving, for individuals to know exactly what type of reaction they are experiencing. Food intolerances and food allergies are managed very differently, so it’s critical to know what’s going on with your body so you can receive the proper education, medication and treatment from your doctor.

Getty Image by a_namenko

Originally published: January 10, 2019
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