What is a food sensitivity? This term is popular, especially with all the food sensitivity test options available.

When you love food, but certain foods don’t seem to love you back, you may wonder if you have a food sensitivity. But what does that even mean, and how do you know if you have one (or more)?

Eating not only serves the purpose of nourishing our bodies so that we can live a healthy, active life, it should also be fun and enjoyable.

For many people, however, eating isn’t always so enjoyable because it results in symptoms that are anything but pleasant.

If you’re one of those people, you know how frustrating it can be to sit down to a meal knowing you’re probably not going to feel great afterward.

And while it’s easy to blame food for causing your symptoms, it’s not always clear what food or foods are to blame, or to know if the food is even causing the symptoms in the first place.

What is a food sensitivity?

A food sensitivity is a response to a food or component of the food, consumed in an amount that is normally tolerated, and that does not involve an IgE (immunoglobulin E) response of the immune system. (1, 2

It’s basically an unpleasant reaction to a food or a specific part or ingredient in the food.

Food sensitivities are thought to affect up to 20% of the population.(1)

While you may have heard the terms “food sensitivity” and “food intolerance” and been confused, both terms are describing the same condition. You can use the terms interchangeably.

What’s the difference between a food sensitivity and a food allergy?

Here’s where things can get confusing if you don’t understand the terms. 

A food intolerance or sensitivity does involve the immune system in the way your body responds to certain foods, but the immune response is a normal process that happens as your food is digested.(2)

The immune response with a food intolerance involves immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies.

A food allergy, on the other hand, involves the immune system in a way that is not a normal response to eating foods. 

A food allergy is an abnormal immune response that involves IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies that are responding to a specific component of the food, usually a protein.

The way the body responds to a food allergy versus a food sensitivity can be a life-or-death difference, which is why it’s crucial to know what foods you’re allergic to if you have any food allergies.

While there are many food sensitivity tests on the market that test for an immunoglobulin G (IgG) response to a wide variety of foods, these tests will not tell you whether you are allergic to the foods tested.

Food allergies are diagnosed using blood testing and skin prick testing.

What are the symptoms of a food sensitivity?

If you’ve ever thought you have one or more food sensitivities, I bet it’s because you have one or more of the following symptoms after eating:

  • Excess gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Loose stools
  • Reflux
  • Heartburn

Those are the obvious digestive symptoms that most people associate with a food sensitivity.

Besides the more common digestive symptoms, there are other, less obvious symptoms that can be associated with food sensitivities.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Itchy skin
  • Acne
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Joint pain
  • Skin rashes
  • Eczema
  • Leg or arm numbness

Here’s where it can get a bit tricky. 

With food sensitivities, you might experience symptoms immediately after consuming a certain food or beverage, but your symptoms may not show up for several hours or even a day or two.

This can make it difficult to nail down what foods you may be reacting to.

Common Food Sensitivities

Below is a list of foods, ingredients or components of foods that are more likely to cause food sensitivity symptoms.

  • Lactose
  • Gluten
  • Soy
  • Caffeine
  • Salicylates
  • Histamine
  • Sulfites
  • Fructose
  • Asparatame
  • Eggs
  • MSG
  • Food Colorings
  • Yeast
  • Sugar Alcohols
  • Food additives (benzoates, colors, MSG, nitrates, propionates, sorbic acid, sulfites)

Many of the ingredients on this list are found in packaged, processed foods, which is why it’s a good idea to avoid overly processed foods as much as possible!

If you aren’t used to cooking from scratch or eating mostly fresh, whole foods, take it one meal at a time. Don’t expect to make the switch overnight! 

Should I take a food sensitivity test?

It’s so tempting to want to know exactly what foods you may be sensitive to, and a food sensitivity test can seem like the solution.

The problem with this is that food sensitivity tests don’t give us the full picture of what’s going on. 

I’ll cover that more in another blog post, but for now, just know that food sensitivity testing isn’t the best solution to helping you overcome your digestive symptoms or IBS.

Why do I have so many food sensitivities?

I’m guessing if you suspect you have food sensitivities, the biggest question you may have is…what can you do about them?

And the bigger question…

Do you have to permanently avoid the foods you’re sensitive to?

I like to think of food sensitivities as the check engine light for gut health and digestion. 

If you react to or have unpleasant side effects from eating certain foods, it means that your digestion isn’t working quite right and that your gut health needs a little TLC.

There are many signs of an unhealthy gut, food sensitivities being one of them.

In many cases, if you uncover and address why your digestion isn’t working the way it should, you can overcome most food sensitivities.

It may be that you need to work on good digestion basics, or you may need to dig a little deeper to get to the bottom of why your gut health is not working well.

Either way, improving your gut health and digestion will allow you to eat a wider variety of foods without symptoms. 

It will also result in improvements in other areas of your health, as outlined in the article why is gut health important.

Bottom Line

Food sensitivities and intolerances and food allergies are very different. If you have any food allergies, it’s important to know exactly what foods you’re allergic to so you can avoid consuming them.

If you struggle with food sensitivities or intolerances, working with a registered dietitian to help you improve your gut health and digestion so that you can eat a wider variety of foods without unpleasant side effects.

Let know if you have any specific questions about food sensitivities by leaving a comment below! 

Ready to learn more about how to improve your digestion so that you can enjoy eating again? Grab this free guide!