Food allergies are on the rise.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview
Survey, the prevalence of food allergies in children under 18 increased from
3.4 percent to 5.1 percent between 1997 and 2011. You may feel like every kid at your child’s school has an
allergy, or you may be managing this serious medical condition within your own
family. Here’s what you need to know about one of the most common conditions affecting
children in the U.S.
What Is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy reaction happens when
the immune system attacks a food protein that it mistakes as a threat to the
body. Symptoms may include itching or swelling of the mouth, throat, face or
skin; trouble breathing; and stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. A
severe food allergy can be life threatening.
To confirm it’s a food allergy and
avoid unnecessary diet restrictions, a diagnosis should be made by a doctor. You
should not diagnose yourself or your child with a food allergy. The only way to
prevent a food allergy reaction is to completely avoid the food and any product
that may contain it as an ingredient.
Food intolerance is not immune
system related; life threatening; or the same as a food allergy, although it
may share similar symptoms. For example, a child with a milk allergy must avoid
all milk products, while a child who is lactose intolerant (lacking the enzyme
to break down natural sugars in milk), but not allergic, may be able to eat small
amounts of dairy.
The National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases lists the most common food allergies in children as
milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat. These foods, along with fish and
shellfish, account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions (also including
adults). While your child may outgrow milk, egg or soy allergies, food
allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and
shellfish tend to be lifelong.
Keeping Your Child Happy and Healthy
It may seem easier to eliminate an
entire food group for a specific allergy (e.g., avoiding all grains due to wheat
allergy), but Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of
Nutrition and Dietetics, says it’s important to find substitutes (in this case,
other grains) that your children will accept, so they can continue to get all
the nutrients they need to grow.
When eating away from home, Sarah
Krieger, MPH, RD, LDN, Academy Spokesperson, recommends bringing back-up foods,
reading the businesses’ websites and looking up nearby grocery stores before you
go. As a family, experiment with alternative ingredients and recipes for
favorite dishes so your child doesn’t feel left out.
You can help your child feel safe
and empowered, says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, Academy Spokesperson, by finding
age-appropriate ways to teach how to discuss and manage allergies, educating
and providing action plans to caregivers, and getting social and mental health
support for your whole family.
For more information on food allergies, visit Food Allergy Research & Education at foodallergy.org.
Reviewed November 2013