They say ‘write what you know’, and if there’s one thing I know about, it’s living with a life threatening allergy. Aside from being truly blessed with a nut and peanut allergy, I also am intolerant to lactose and, rather specifically, coconut milk (hit me up with that coconut oil though).
With constantly having to have my eyes open and brain on high alert when it comes to eating out, I’ve noticed there’s quite a lot of misunderstanding on what is an allergy or intolerance. I’ve met plenty of people who say they have an allergy to something, then they later explain it’s actually an intolerance. “Oh yeah, I’m allergic to cheese!… Actually, it’s more of an intolerance, not an allergy”.
I understand that some people are not fully informed, and some people just feel more comfortable in incorrectly labelling an issue for whatever reason. But I can’t help it; it’s my biggest pet peeve. Why is it so darn important to me that there’s differentiation between an allergy and intolerance? Why does it grind my gears so much? Well, let’s get to the bottom of this.
What is an intolerance?
To put it simply, having an intolerance to something means you have an unpleasant physical reaction to it. For example, when I eat the cheesiest mac and cheese I can find, I will start to get stomach bloating, pain, feeling sick, and will eventually have said food leave my body quickly. Normally, this reaction happens after the fact; from something like half an hour to a few hours. With an intolerance, to get those unpleasant symptoms, you normally have to eat quite a bit of the food. For me, cheese on my burger is fine, and a splash of milk in my tea won’t set me off. However, that delicious full plate of four cheese mac and cheese? Yeah, I’d rather not…
So, what is an allergy?
In comparison to the unpleasant physical reaction you have with an intolerance, to have an allergy means you have an allergic reaction. This is when your immune system goes into overdrive and completely overreacts to a normally harmless substance. So, my immune system turns into a drama queen when it’s confronted with nuts or peanuts. Unlike an intolerance, where it takes a certain amount of food and time to have a physical reaction, an allergic reaction happens within minutes and the smallest amount could set it off. I’ve been admitted to hospital for accidentally picking up some peanut butter particles from a table, and then touching my face. Some times, even being i the same room as peanuts can give me a reaction.
Whereas you do get some unpleasant physical symptoms from an intolerance (and I am not downplaying how unpleasant they can be, trust me), an allergic reaction presents similar symptoms and more. When I eat something or touch something that has nuts in, I get a rash, start to wheeze, feel swelling in my tongue, and start to feel an itch on my skin, throat, and tongue. If I eat something with peanuts in, then my body goes into full blown drama queen mode, and I have anaphylaxis! Anaphylaxis is when I break out in hives, my throat starts to close up, and I could have heart failure, liver failure, or suffocate! Living with an allergy totally dictates my life. It dictates where I eat, what countries I visit, who I hang out with. I get anxiety over almost every restaurant I go to, write off visiting anywhere that serves open nuts, and boy oh boy do I get worked up over travelling. Plus, I’ve got to carry around various medications with me at all times in case the worst happens.
Both intolerances and allergies and not the most fun thing to have, and both come with nasty side effects. So why is differentiation important?
It’s important because there is a difference. If I eat cheese, sure, I’ll be on the toilet for sometime and will regret eating that delicious bowl of mac and cheese that I keep thinking about. But if I eat a peanut? I don’t know if I’d be here to tell you why differentiation is important. To some people that may seem drastic, but it’s the brutal truth of it.
As someone who deals with both food related issues, I am not diminishing intolerances! I know the struggle it can be to find something on a menu that isn’t going to hurt you, and the negativity some people offer when it comes to intolerances – “oh, you’ll be fine”, “one meal won’t hurt you.” Actually, one meal will hurt me, thank you very much (this is something I really need to remember because I am a big sucker for cheese).
Whether you have an intolerance or an allergy, I think it’s key that we call these conditions what they are, and that we don’t play around with words or grey areas. We need to speak about the struggles that come with both, and also tell people they are not the same. Speaking the truth about illnesses and conditions are the only way we can normalise them and get people around us to change their views. And that’s why differentiation is important.
I’m so keen to know what you think of this topic! Do you have any allergies or intolerances that affect your day to day life? How have you found other people’s views of them? Let me know in the comments.