Food allergies in children are increasing at an alarming rate in the US and in developed countries. The CDC reported a 50% increase in pediatric food allergies between 1997-2011. What causes food allergies and why are they increasing? What new research and treatments are emerging in this field, and how can families more effectively manage the physical and psychosocial impact of these conditions?
Food Allergies 101
A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system sees a certain food as harmful and reacts by releasing excess histamines into the bloodstream, causing a wide variety of symptoms. This allergic reaction can range from hives, stomach pain, or an itchy throat, to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is the most dangerous reaction. It can be fatal, and it requires immediate medical intervention.
Beyond these more typical reactions, it’s important to consider that many behavior and mood disorders can also be tied to an allergy or sensitivity to food ingredients. Research is emerging, but anecdotal evidence suggests food and environmental sensitivities can trigger physical and emotional reactions such as hyperactivity, lethargy, depression, anxiety, and even autism.
Food allergies can occur any time and at any age, but for children and teenagers, reactions tend to be more severe and hospitalizations are increasing. Although there are over 150 foods that are known to cause allergic reactions, the eight most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. These foods account for 90% of all allergies and reactions. The FDA has created food labeling laws that require manufacturers to label any food that contains these ingredients or proteins derived from them.
Testing for allergies is done through a variety of methods, including blood and skin tests. But the most important factor in coming to a diagnosis is the child’s food story, which details what the child ate, the reaction, and when it occurred. Generally, allergic reactions occur within minutes to hours of ingesting the allergen. It’s important to distinguish a symptom associated with an allergic reaction from those related to viral infections or fevers. That’s why it’s crucial to document timelines and seek medical attention when you suspect that you or your child has a food allergy.
While laboratory tests are important, they are not completely accurate and can sometimes yield false positive or false negative results. An experienced practitioner will look at the situation holistically to distinguish a real allergy from a sensitivity or virus, and employ other techniques such as food journals and oral food challenges.
With almost 8% of children and teenagers in the United States living with a known food allergy, it is becoming a larger issue in our culture. Affected families need to be vigilant to monitor food safety, and children must learn at a young age to advocate for themselves and question all external food sources. The field of Dynamic Eating Psychology cautions us that this additional vigilance can create stress and feelings of isolation or separateness around the eating process. Studies find that 50% of kids with allergies are bullied at school. Eating should be a source of enjoyment, so it’s crucial for parents and teachers to find ways to create safe eating environments for all children that don’t socially isolate those with allergies.
In addition, cutting-edge research in Mind Body Nutrition suggests there are likely a great many children with undiagnosed allergies that, while not life threatening, are causing unwanted symptoms and behavior issues. If children wake in the morning feeling good, but experience problems with digestion, mood, or concentration after eating, then a food allergy could be the source. While allergy tests are not always reliable, the gold standard is an elimination diet. Eliminating all or some of the common allergens for a period of three weeks is a good place to start. While eliminating foods can be a big challenge, it really is the best method to isolate a food allergy. The website for the Institute for Functional Medicine has a great resource for managing an elimination diet. The topic of food allergies and elimination diets is also explored in depth in our Eating Psychology Coach Certification program.
Most children just want acceptance and to be like everyone else, but having a special condition like an allergy means they can’t eat at lunch tables containing allergens, like peanut butter, or enjoy party foods and cakes that contain dairy or eggs. While some schools have created “peanut free” tables, allergy advocates are working to reverse this trend and create “allergen” lunch tables. So instead of creating an environment where children are separated beyond their control, they create a place for children who aren’t allergic but choose to eat the offending foods. While this seems like a simple thing, it goes a long way to remove the stigma.
Sadly, research has not kept pace with this pervasive problem. Standard diagnosis and treatment procedures have not advanced greatly over the past decade, even though the number of children suffering from allergies is increasing. Researchers cannot agree on the cause for the rise in allergy conditions. In some cases, there is definitely a biological factor, and the allergy is part of the person’s DNA. But for many others, experts suspect external problems such as the increased levels of chemicals and pollutants in our environment.
Experts in the field of epigenetics argue that the rise in chemicals and genetically modified food is literally changing our DNA and creating problems with our immune functioning. In other words, external environmental factors such as the air, water, and food that we take in are changing the DNA sequencing of our bodies and our children’s bodies. It’s predicted that we will continue to see a rise in conditions related to immune functioning.
However, for children with life threatening allergies, there is promising research from Stanford University that uses oral immunotherapy to change the DNA of patients and eliminate their allergies. Initial findings show that over time, the combination of immune suppressing drugs and controlled consumption of the allergen can actually change the body’s immune system and suppress the allergic reaction. The process is time consuming and requires frequent clinical visits, but results so far have been very positive.
The good news is that 25% of children, especially those diagnosed at a young age, will outgrow their allergies. Regardless of what the allergen is, Mind Body Nutrition principles promote eating high quality, nutrient dense food to optimize health and strengthen immune function. Some experts have also hypothesized that our over-sterile environment has contributed to the rise in allergies. We’re now learning that getting out in nature, and even getting “dirty,” is important for a child’s immune function to develop properly. Supporting the health of our gut microbiome by consuming probiotic rich foods and supplements can also help with food reactions and sensitivities. Everybody’s body reacts a little differently, so experimentation is key.
Since the experience of having an allergy can be an isolating one for children, it’s up to the adults in their lives to help them feel like they fit in, and to reassure them that their allergy does not make them “different.” Food is an important part of our social lives, as well as our physical, mental, and emotional health. Children who are dealing with allergies require lots of loving care and support to help them find a place at the table. And if you can give them the practical tools to manage their allergies, they’ll be more empowered to create their own food story. Just like adults, each child is on their own unique nutritional journey. It’s a journey that will last their whole life long, and the food education they receive in childhood can prepare them to nourish themselves beautifully for many years to come!
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