March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Food allergies get lots of attention, so it's natural to wonder about the potential harm to your child. While reactions to food can be serious, it's important to know the facts and what you can do to reduce your child's risk.
- Food allergies are highest in infants and toddlers. It is estimated that up to 8 percent of children under 3 years of age in North America have an allergy to a limited number of foods. The most common food allergies in children are cow's milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, wheat, fish, shellfish and tree nuts. Many children outgrow food allergies. Food allergies are much less common in adults than children due mostly to the differences in the immune response of infants and children as compared to adults.
- The only way to prevent a food allergy reaction is to avoid the food and any items that contain it as an ingredient. Promising treatments for food allergies are in the works. Ongoing studies indicate it may be possible to "desensitize" children, even those with severe reactions.
Tips for Reducing a Child's Risk of Developing Food Allergies
Take special care with feeding practices during your child's first years, especially if a biological parent or sibling has been diagnosed with an allergic disease. While following these feeding tips cannot guarantee a child will not develop a food allergy, it may help reduce the risk.
- Exclusive breast-feeding for at least four months decreases the incidence of atopic dermatitis, cow's milk allergy and wheezing in early life when compared with feeding infants cow's milk-based formula.
- The use of soy-based infant formula does not appear to play a role in allergy prevention.
- Solid foods should not be introduced before 4 to 6 months of age. Delaying the introduction of solid foods beyond 4 to 6 months of age does not appear to provide significant protective effect from developing food allergies.
- At this time there is insufficient evidence to recommend further dietary interventions such as avoiding specific foods (including fish, eggs or peanuts) during pregnancy, breast-feeding or beyond 4 to 6 months of age to protect against the development of food allergies.
If at any time your infant reacts badly to a food, such as suddenly developing a skin condition, wheezing, vomiting or excessive diarrhea, or if you have any reason to suspect he or she may be allergic to a food, call your pediatrician immediately.
Keeping Kids with Allergies as Safe as Possible
Once your pediatrician or allergist has tested and confirmed food allergies, you need to be diligent about avoiding the food(s).
- Read food labels for potential problems. If you don't know what an ingredient is, call the manufacturer for details.
- Educate family, caregivers and teachers about your child's allergies. Some people don't know how serious food allergies can be and may not understand even tiny amounts of a food can be a problem.
- Teach your child about the allergy. He or she can learn to take responsibility for avoiding the foods that cause problems.
- Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist. An RDN will work with you and your child to develop a healthful eating pattern while avoiding allergens.