Do You Have a Food Intolerance or Food Fear?

Written By


Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

Food Fear 1 1080X675 1 | Do You Have A Food Intolerance Or Food Fear?

As you begin to incorporate more real foods into your diet and become more aware of how food makes you feel, it can be easy to fall into a conundrum of questions about your body’s ability to tolerate (or not tolerate) certain foods you may, at one time, have not thought twice about

Knowledge is power, but for some, unnecessary food fears or food rules can evolve and it’s important to recognize the differences in food fears and food intolerances (to help you keep sane).

How do you know the difference in a food intolerance or allergy vs. a food fear or a food aversion? Well…ask yourself “How do I feel when I eat this certain food—physically and mentally?”

There is a difference!

Common Signs of Food Intolerances & Allergies

  • Bloated or gassy shortly after eating
  • Constipation
  • Low energy
  • Skin breakouts
  • Anemia
  • Low immunity
  • Allergies
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Anxiety
  • Lowered mood
  • Insatiable cravings for foods that make you feel bloated or gassy
  • Heart palpitations or racing heart
  • Achy joints
  • Sneezing & coughing
  • Headaches & lightheadedness
  • Gastric distress, diarrhea, or nausea
  • Foggy eyes & brain

Common Signs of Food Fear

  • Overthinking food
  • Making yourself believe and think food is hurting you
  • Correlating eating with weight gain
  • Counting the calories in the food and worrying about eating too many
  • Avoidance of foods or food groups without ever having tasted or tried them before
  • Avoidance of social gatherings around food
  • Basing food choices off of self-imposed rules
  • Giving yourself a stomachache over the stress around food
  • Pre-planning your foods and calories
  • Having to “earn” your food

Sometimes lines blur. A missing link many people fail to recognize is knowing when they have or haven’t eaten “right” based on how they feel—more so than what any rule in a diet book says or achievement you feel by not eating certain foods.

On the contrary, a missing link on the path to food freedom and intuitive eating is recognition of what food intolerances really look like. While food freedom is amazing, a general respect for your body’s ability to digest (or not digest) certain foods are also necessary.

Food Intolerance & Allergies 101

It’s important to recognize what food intolerances and allergies are. The two are often thought to be similar, but there are several distinct differences.

A true food allergy is an immune system response.

It is caused when the body mistakes an ingredient in food — usually a protein — as harmful and creates a defense system (antibodies) to fight it. An allergic reaction occurs when the antibodies are battling an “invading” food protein, such as: Rash or hives, nausea, stomach pains, diarrhea, itchy skin, chest pains, shortness of breath, or lung swelling. The most common food allergies are shellfish, nuts, fish, eggs, peanuts, and milk.

A food intolerance is a digestive system response rather than an immune system response.

It occurs when something in a food irritates a person’s digestive system or when a person is unable to properly digest, or break down, the food. In other words, you eat a food your body doesn’t know how to handle and your body goes “May day! I don’t know what to do with this!” It may present in the signs and symptoms mentioned above, though usually less severe.

Food intolerances vary more considerably than food allergies, though common sensitivities include: lactose, found in milk and other dairy products, gluten, grains, nuts and seeds, FODMAPs (onions, garlic, apples, bananas, avocado, tomatoes), nightshades (potatoes, peppers), and of course, packaged and processed foods. Not necessarily ALL of them, but some of them.


Both food allergy and food intolerance tests can be diagnosed via lab testing, as well as mindful eating, elimination testing and the Cocoa’s Pulse Test.

Lab Testing

For clinical lab testing, Cyrex Labs provides one of the most robust food allergy and intolerance testing, as it looks for all sorts of proteins individuals may be allergic or intolerant to—not just the “basics.”

For instance, a lot of GI doctors know how to screen for celiac disease, they’ll typically test for antibodies called alpha-gliadin, transglutaminase-2, deamidated gliadin and endomysium. If some of these tests are positive, then they may perform a biopsy to determine if enteropathy or tissue damage is present, but if the tests are negative, the patient is usually told that they don’t have celiac or gluten intolerance—end of the story. However, research shows that people can and do react to several other components in wheat above and beyond alpha-gliadin, which is why a robust food allergy and intolerance panel can be beneficial for the full picture.

Mindful Eating

Getting in touch with how food makes you feel can also get you far.  Many of us are simply disconnected from the correlation between food and feelings.

For example, as a kid growing up, I was not a picky eater. I ate whatever my mom served me or packed in my lunch for school, and simply saw food as something necessary to get me from basketball practice to dance class to using brain power for my long division math problems. Food also tasted good, and my go-to foods were all based on what my tastebuds told me they liked (i.e. sugar!):  Pop-tarts. Eggo Waffles. Macaroni and cheese. Spaghetti-O’s. Fruit Rollups and Gushers. Wheat Thins Crackers and Kraft Singles cheese slices. Chocolate milk.

As a kid of the ‘processed’ food generation, grains, dairy and sugar made up the bulk of my childhood diet. Fast forward to my later teen and college years: More aware of how particular foods impacted the body (in my teen mind: made you ‘fat’ or ‘skinny’), I developed a diet mentality, and the bulk of my nutrition consisted of: Crystal Light and Diet Sodas, Lean Cuisine frozen meals, low-fat grains and dairy products, canned protein drinks, egg whites, and oats flavored with Splenda packets.

While both of these seasons of my life (childhood and early 20s) reflect two completely different food philosophies (processed foods and diet foods), one thing was the same: my symptoms:

  • Fluctuating constipation, bloating and loose stools
  • Frequent nausea or gastric discomfort
  • Sluggish digestion post-meals
  • Frequent gas
  • Spikes in energy, followed soon by lows in energy
  • Poor mental focus

These were my norm.

It was not until giving a real-food nutrition template a chance (cutting out the grains, the dairy, the artificial sweeteners, the sugar, the low fat intake) that I had my LIGHTBULB moment: Food actually impacts how I FEEL!

It’s not just about the taste or what you’ve been told foods will do for you (ex. “You must drink this pre-workout powder,” or, “Nuts are heart healthy,” or “Avoid sugar by using artificial sweeteners”, etc.).

The same thing happened on a “real foods” diet, during a brief stint when I resolved I needed to “go paleo” and later, “go Keto.” This entailed ZERO non-paleo foods, very low carbs and low sugar (including fruit), and guilt if I entertained the thought of anything outside my righteous way of eating. Until one day, I ate half a banana and a sweet potato—in the same day—and I realized, the world continued to turn. Another day I tried sushi—with rice, and one more day, protein powder with a little bit of stevia in it, and I really realized that life went on. Food DOES impact how you feel, and instead of listening too the food rules and guidelines you’ve imposed upon yourself, what would it be like to experiment with a variety of foods and determine for yourself how food makes you feel?

Elimination Testing

If you suspect a food intolerance, the easiest way to test yourself is to simply try eliminating the trigger food from your diet altogether—for several days. At least 3 to 7 days. Note how you feel. Better? Symptom free? No change? After your time is up, reintroduce it with a meal and…just see.  How do you feel now? Did any symptoms return?

If that’s not it, then it may be something else like a different trigger food, the quality of the food (organic vs. non organic), a lack of digestive health and support, stress—or any combination of these.

Note: For most accurate results with the food elimination test, consider testing one food—as opposed to multiple foods—at a time. Or, if you do cut out more than one food, it will work best if you reintroduce foods one at a time.

Cocoas Pulse Test

The Cocoa’s Pulse Test is a nutritional therapy evaluation that helps determine any “allergic tension” an individual may have. Here’s how to do it.

  • Collect any foods you’d like to test for possible food allergies (ex. oatmeal, bread, nuts, cheese, rice, tomato, apples, eggs, etc.).
  • Take your resting pulse x 1 minute while seated and relaxed.
  • Then place the test food in your mouth.
  • Salivate it for 30 seconds.
  • Retake your resting pulse x 1 minute while seated and relaxed.

If your pulse change by six beats or more, it is indicative of “allergic tension.” You can perform this for as many suspected foods as you like.

Now the question turns to you: Are there particular foods you eat that your body simply doesn’t agree with?

How do you really know how or if certain foods are impacting you in a negative way—particularly if you’ve been eating these foods, day in and day out for 15-30 years? Or following food rules that seem good, in theory (like eating sugar-free additives, or nuts for every snack)?

Are there certain foods you say you are “intolerant” to, but really just fear?

You actually may not even realize how these foods are making you feel until you dig in and examine it further.

And if you are “intolerant” it may not actually be the food itself you are intolerant to, but rather you may have a case of poor gut health or leaky gut directly impacting your digestion and ability to tolerate foods. Check in with yourself and really consider how you’re feeling when eating different foods.

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