Food Allergies and Eating Disorders

If a person has the biological predisposition for an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, any situation that causes them to either experience a reduction in the amount of calories they are consuming or a restriction of foods they can eat has the potential to create a negative energy balance. A negative energy balance is created whenever a person is burning off more calories than they are consuming. A negative energy balance or restriction of foods can trigger an eating disorder.

With that in mind, it is understandable how dieting is a common precursor to an eating disorder in a person who is predisposed to having one. However, there are other reasons that a person might have a negative energy balance or a deduction in the number of calories they are consuming. Illness is one such potential cause, and food allergies are another.

Common Food Allergies

The most common food allergies include:

  • Peanut – 1.4 percent of children in the USA suffer from a peanut allergy. This type of allergy tends to be a life-long allergy as unlike other types of allergies, it does not go away as a person gets older.
  • Gluten/Wheat – 0.4 percent of children are allergic to wheat. This is different from celiac disease which is an autoimmune disorder. 1 in 133 people have celiac disease and can’t eat gluten.
  • Milk – 2.5% of children under age 3 have an allergy to milk and many will outgrow it eventually. An allergy to milk requires strict avoidance of milk and is not to be confused with lactose intolerance.
  • Lactose Intolerance – Caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose in the gut. Consumption of dairy can lead to digestive discomfort (nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea), but is not life-threatening. Symptoms can be reduced with over-the-counter medications such as Lactaid, taken prior to eating dairy.
  • Eggs – 1.5 percent of children are allergic to chicken eggs. Egg is present in many types of baked food, so this allergy can affect the amount of calories that a person is able to consume safely.
  • Fish – 0.1 percent of children are allergic to fish.
  • Shellfish
  • Soy – 0.4 percent of children are allergic to soy; this is another product that can be present in a lot of processed goods.

Celiac Disease

Gluten intolerance or celiac disease is different from a wheat allergy. This is where gluten is eaten and has an adverse effect on the body. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is used to describe people who are not celiac but have symptoms of gluten intolerance.

Due to the more recent popularity of eating gluten-free, many more people have begun to avoid gluten or suspect they have a gluten intolerance. For the most part, this avoidance of food containing wheat and gluten stems from a genuine belief that doing so is healthy or beneficial for the body. There is significant food fear-mongering against carbohydrates, sugar, wheat, and gluten at the moment. There are also some people that use the concept of not eating wheat as a dietary rule because they think it will prevent them from gaining weight. If someone is biologically predisposed to eating disorders and restricts their food intake, they may be at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Restriction of food can be in the form of decreasing food intake or reducing the type of foods eaten. This also affects those who tend to think in rigid “black”/”white”, “all-or-nothing” terms, have perfectionistic tendencies, and have a strong desire for control.

Food Related Anxiety

For some individuals that have suffered from an intense adverse reaction to a particular type of food, an aversion to eating that food is created by the negative experience that they had. An example of this might be a child or adult with a nut allergy who experienced an anaphylactic shock as a result of eating food with peanuts in. After the reaction, they may experience anxiety around eating food due to their fear that they will accidentally eat something that will cause them an allergic reaction again. If this is not addressed, the person might reduce their calorie intake as a result of their anxiety around food; if they are someone who is predisposed to an eating disorder, this could be dangerous for them.

What To Do If You Suspect You Have A Food Allergy

If you suspect you have a food allergy it is important to get tested by a medical doctor. If the tests show you have an allergy to a specific type of food you may need to plan on not eating that food, but you will also need to make sure you do not fall into a negative energy balance as a result, especially if you have a history of an eating disorder. It can be helpful to work with a registered dietitian to make sure you get all of the nutrients and calories your body needs. Exercise caution with home food sensitivity/intolerance tests as they lack scientific evidence and often result in unnecessary food restrictions.

Often times people decide to go on an elimination diet as seen on the internet, or maybe they are recommended by a physician. If you have had an eating disorder in the past, are currently struggling with one, or have a genetic predisposition to develop one, it may cause more harm than good to go on this restrictive diet. If you’re considering an elimination diet, consult with a registered dietitian well versed in eating disorders and food sensitivities for recommendations and support. If you have recently decided to be gluten-free for medical reasons it is important to make up for any nutrients and caloric energy that might be lost. A dietitian can help navigate making helpful dietary changes.


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Written By Tabitha Farrar
Updated 11/2019


Beyond Celiac