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.