Understanding Food Allergies

With the increase of processed foods in our daily diets, food allergies are becoming more commonplace. Why the sudden rise in children with food allergies?  One reason could be the advanced means of a true medical diagnosis; however, food production methods have become significantly more sophisticated allowing for many new and manufactured food products to make their way to our plates.
Food Allergies Vs. Food Intolerances

True food allergies are not as common as you might think, and food allergies are often mistaken for food intolerances.  According to the Academy of Asthma Allergy & Immunology (AAAI), about 8% of children have food allergies.  The main difference between an allergy and intolerance is that an allergy actually elicits an immune system response.   This response occurs when the body treats a food as an “enemy invader″ and begins making antibodies for that particular food, similar to the reaction involved in celiac disease.  A food intolerance is a digestive system response, as opposed to immune, and occurs when a certain food irritates a person’s digestive system and they cannot digest the food properly.  The most common intolerance is lactose, which is found in milk and other dairy products.

The most common allergies/intolerances in children are:

  • Wheat or gluten
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Milk
  • Eggs

Other sources of allergies/intolerances include:

  • Casein (a protein in milk also used as a food stabilizer)
  • Artificial colorings and flavorings
  • Other tree nuts
  • Citrus Fruits
  • Nightshade vegetables: tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and peppers

It is important to note that children do not always express a food allergy or intolerance in the same manner as adults do.  According to the AAAI, 39.7% of food allergic children have a history of severe reactions and 30.4% have multiple food allergies.  The good news is many children with food intolerances often outgrow them when reaching adulthood, but getting a proper diagnosis is very important.  Adults can grow intolerant to a food, especially one that is eaten all the time so it’s good to keep variety in your diet- especially varying your grains.

Symptoms of food allergies can include rash, asthma, chronic ear infections, nausea, diarrhea, sinusitis, stuffy nose, or behavioral disturbances.  Food Intolerances can include symptoms of allergies in addition to cramping, heartburn, gas and bloating.   The most severe reaction to food allergy is anaphylaxis, and can be a life threatening condition so it is important to talk to your doctor if you suspect your child has food allergies.

Diagnosis                                                                                

To start, a health care professional will take a detailed diet history as well as symptoms so if you plan to have your child tested or suspect a food allergy or intolerance it is important to keep a diet log of all foods eaten as well as any reactions that occur.  Food intolerances can be trickier to diagnose, but the simplest method is eliminating a food from you or your child’s diet that you suspect is causing problems for at least 2-3 weeks.  Upon re-introduction of the suspected food, if symptoms return then it is a likely culprit.  Read up on elimination/rotation diets for more information.

Because food allergies create an immune response, an antibody to an allergic food will be present in the blood stream therefore a simple blood test can determine a number of food allergies.   Another diagnostic method is a skin prick test, in which tiny drops of  food extracts are placed just under the skin on the arm or the back and reactions are measured.  Considered the ‘gold standard’ is the oral food challenge; where a person is given small vials of various foods to determine allergic reactions.  This should only be done under the care of a doctor because of the risk of a severe allergic reaction.

As always, talk to your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns.

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