Having read about the Food Allergy Awareness Week while researching for last week’s Five for Fridays, I wanted to dig into this topic a little more. This is a problem that an increasing number of parents are worried about these days. If you are one of them, I would love to have you share your personal experience and tips in the comments below. Here is a summary of my research from several good sources on food allergies.
I am also glad to announce that this is my 100th post!
First the numbers
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on Food Allergy Among US Children in October 2008. Here are few interesting, and in my opinion a little worrisome, statistics from this report –
- Almost 4 in 100 children less than 18 years old were reported to have some form of food allergy in 2007. This corresponds to a total of 3 million children. The rate of food allergy in children less than 5 years old is nearly 5 in 100.
- Compared to 10 years ago, this represents an increase of 18%.
- Children reporting an allergic response to food were 2 to 4 times more likely to develop asthma or other allergies compared to children without food allergies.
- Eight types of foods account for over 90% of food allergies – milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.
- Hospitalizations with diagnosis of food allergy have increased nearly 4 times compared to 10 years ago.
Why food allergies are on the rise
The exact reason why a child develops allergy to various foods are not well known. However a lot of experts believe that poor quality of early childhood nutrition may be a factor. In his book Disease-Proof Your Child, Dr. Joel Fuhrman writes that apart from non-dietary factors, following nutrition related issues are responsible for increasing the risk for asthma and food allergies –
- Lack of breastfeeding
- High ratio of omega-6 acids to omega-3 fatty acids. People on meat rich diets in the Western world typically get ratios around 10 to 1 and some get as high as 30 to 1. This ratio should be around 4 to 1 or lower.
- High ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in mother’s diet during pregnancy
- Low vitamin E intakes
- Lack of fruits and vegetables
The immune system of young children is not fully developed, which makes them more likely to develop food allergies especially if they do not get good nutrition. But the good news, according to Dr. Fuhrman, is that it is also easier for them to recover from food allergies when a program of good nutrition is adopted.
It is easy to confuse food intolerance with food allergies
Sometimes the first symptoms of a mild food allergy may be similar to food intolerance, so it is easy to get confused. The main difference is that food allergy is a response from the immune system while food intolerance is a problem with digestion. For example, people with lactose intolerance cannot digest milk because their bodies do not have an enzyme called lactase. Lactose intolerance can result in discomfort, gas, bloating or nausea or diarrhea, but is not life threatening. Allergy to cow milk on the other hand is a result of antibodies produced by the immune system as a reaction to milk protein and can cause a very severe reaction. Similarly, intolerance to gluten causes the celiac disease which affects the small intestine, but it is not the same as wheat allergy.
Diagnosing food allergies
It is good to take any reaction to food seriously and consult with your doctor who can run tests to confirm if your child has food allergies. Physical examination and a comprehensive medical history is usually the first step. Use of blood tests to detect food related antibodies is becoming very common, but without a good interpretation and link to the medical history, these can be very misleading. In fact there is an increase in the number of misdiagnosis of food allergies based on blood tests which I wrote about recently in my Five for Fridays column. This can result in unnecessary over restriction of foods. Skin testing with known food allergens is another option but this is not routinely done. In some extreme cases, your allergy specialist may decide to do food challenges to find out which specific foods cause an allergic response. Do not try it at home! The key is to keep a watchful eye on the reaction of your child, and if you suspect food allergies or intolerance, contact your physician as soon as possible.
Tips for managing nutrition of children with allergy
In his book, Dr. Fuhrman provides examples of how food allergies and asthma can be managed, and in some cases, completely reversed by good nutrition. I like one example of 3 year old twin boys who had severe allergic reactions to almost anything like soy, milk, peanuts, corn, strawberries, cats, dogs, and how within a few years of his nutritional therapy he was able to resolve most of these problems. In general, he recommends a diet rich in vegetables, walnuts and fruits with DHA supplements and multivitamins and no processed foods, dairy fats or trans fats. Not that this can guarantee to result in reversal of food allergies, but it makes good sense to me.
I would love to hear your experiences and tips if your child is suffering from food allergies. I am sure it is very hard for you as a parent, and it is my sincere hope that things get better for you in time. Please leave a comment below if you want to share.
Photo source – laffy4k on Flickr