More and more children and adults suffer from food allergies.
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases food allergies affect 4% of adults and 5% of children in the United States.
The number of reported food allergies has increased in recent years. For instance, the prevalence of peanut allergy among children has reportedly doubled over 10 years in North America. (1)
Most food allergies develop in childhood, and children generally outgrow them, although this is not always the case. Food allergies can also develop in adulthood, but this is rarer. (2)
Personal medical history, family history, age and other factors can influence the likelihood that a person develops food allergy.
There is presently no cure for food allergy, but some experimental immunotherapies may decrease symptoms in some people with food allergy.
But what is a food allergy?
Food allergies develop when a person consumes or comes in contact with their allergen, and the immune system makes an antibody. This antibody then circulates through the blood and attaches to immune cells. This initial exposure does not cause an allergic reaction, however subsequent contact with the same allergen may allow previously created antibodies to recognize it. This recognition then launches an immune response that can result in a severe allergic reaction.
Symptoms of food allergy
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and affect each individual differently.
Not every person will experience all of the possible symptoms, and each reaction may be slightly different. However, common signs and symptoms include:
- Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
- burning sensation in the lips and mouth
- Face, tongue, or lip swelling
- Swelling of the throat and vocal cords
- Flushed skin or rash (hives)
- nausea or vomiting
- a runny nose
- streaming eyes
- Abdominal cramps
- Coughing or wheezing
- Dizziness and/or lightheadedness
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Common food allergy triggers
The most common allergenic foods account for about 90% of all food allergies, and people commonly refer to them as the “big eight allergens.” (3). These foods are:
- nuts from trees, including hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios
- peanuts or groundnuts
- shellfish, including shrimps, lobster, and crab
The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology say that the most common food allergens for children are milk, eggs, and peanuts.
They report that children generally outgrow allergies to milk, egg, soy, and wheat and that up to 25% of children may outgrow an allergy to peanuts.
European countries have additional top allergens that include sesame, celery, lupin (a legume), and mustard. Sesame is an increasingly common food allergy in the U.S.
What causes food allergies?
In those with food allergies, the immune system treats a specific protein in a food as a harmful substance that may cause disease. It responds by producing IgE antibodies that will play a role in attacking this protein.
When the person eats the same food again, the antibodies are ready, so the immune system reacts immediately by releasing histamine and other chemical substances into the bloodstream. These chemicals cause the symptoms of food allergies.
Histamine causes blood vessels to expand and the skin to become inflamed or swollen. It also affects the nerves, making the skin feel itchy. The nose may produce more mucus, resulting in itching, burning, and a streaming nose.
What to do if symptoms occur
When you verify symptoms after eating certain foods you should contact a health care provider for appropriate testing and evaluation.
If you or a loved one has food allergies, use these 4 tips to help reduce your risk of getting sick:
- Always read food labels.
- Avoid foods that you are allergic to.
- Learn to recognize the early symptoms of an allergic reaction, in case of accidental ingestion.
- Know what to do in case an allergic reaction occurs. Plan to have ready access to the appropriate treatment measures and medical care.
Consequences of food allergies
Food allergies and the consequent dietary restriction resulting from the avoidance of allergenic foods may have negative effects on either short- and long-term outcomes.
The development of food allergies in early life may negatively impact growth and more generally body composition. Moreover, an unsupervised dietary restriction has been correlated to presence of eating disorders later in life (i.e., adolescence). (4)
Given that the mainstay of the management of food allergy is based on the dietary elimination of major food allergens, attention should be paid to the risk of nutritional deficiencies. Inadequate intakes of specific nutrients may also be exacerbated by the anxiety of avoiding even minimal amounts of offending allergens in industry-based food preparations.
Since a food allergy developed during childhood may persist also in adult life, this may determine a lifetime cumulative exposure to nutritional deficiencies, negatively affecting the functional reserves of the individual.
Lastly, it is well-established that the exclusion of individual food categories from the diet may expose to other micronutrient deficiencies (i.e., calcium, selenium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, B vitamins). Ensuring an appropriate dietary quality, as well as adequate intakes of all macro- and micronutrients is therefore of pivotal importance in the management of food allergies.
Food allergy prevention
In the U.S., 1 in 13 children have food allergy. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that between 1997 and 2011, the prevalence of food allergy in U.S. children increased by 50 percent.
Recent findings suggest that an early exposure to diverse food antigens may promote the development of immune tolerance. (4)
Accordingly, diet diversity during the first year of life or even earlier may have a positive impact on the prevention of allergies. The anti-inflammatory properties of some dietary nutrients may positively contribute to a tolerogenic immune environment too. Diet diversity is associated with a more favorable microbiome, and increasing evidence suggests a promising role of gut microbiota manipulation in inducing immune tolerance.
Given that a more diverse diet is associated with a healthier diet, regardless of age, the promotion of diet diversity should therefore be supported in both children and adults to prevent food allergies.
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Have a sweet and healthy week,