Nutrition for Food Allergies

Allergic reaction to foods is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the body’s immune system. Food allergies can be life threatening, causing serious illness or death when they are severe. According to the National Institutes of Health, tree nuts and peanuts are the leading causes of such deadly allergic reactions referred to as anaphylaxis. Milder food allergies can cause annoying rashes, problematic breathing, fatigue, and other health issues. Food intolerances are those reactions to foods not caused by the immune system, but which might mimic food allergies.

With an estimated two percent of adults, and six percent of children who have true food allergies—with 21st century statistics climbing—the issue of food allergies and how to treat them are of paramount importance in ensuring human health and safety. Learning correct nutrition can help identify and avoid foods that cause allergic reactions while maintain proper nutritional needs.

Why use Nutrition for Food Allergies?

Nutrition can serve both as a preventive measure, and a remedy for food allergies. A crucial aspect in preventing food allergies must begin with a mother during pregnancy, and during infancy and early childhood for those considered most likely to develop food allergies—especially if there is a family history of allergies and asthma. The most common practices for dealing with prevention of the development of food allergies, beginning in infancy includes most importantly the delay of exposure to certain allergenic foods.

That can be accomplished by:

  • Breastfeeding babies at least four to six months, if possible, since breast milk is less likely than other milks to produce an allergic reaction, and it strengthens the child’s immune system.
  • No solid foods until a child has reached the age of at least six months, introducing vegetables, rice, meat, and fruit from age six months to twelve months, adding each one at a time so that any food causing an adverse reaction can be eliminated.
  • After the first year, adding milk, wheat, corn, citrus, and soy.
  • At age two, introducing eggs.
  • At age three, adding fish and peanuts.

By observing the above guidelines, and providing whole and natural foods that are not processed with chemicals, a child’s immune system has the best opportunity to develop and possibly avoid the development of harmful food allergies. When allergies do occur, some might eventually be outgrown. For instance, up to 20 percent of children who suffer from a peanut allergy will outgrow it.

Dealing with Food Allergies

Two common methods of dealing with food allergies are the elimination and rotation diets. The elimination diet requires that the food causing allergic reactions be replaced with a similar food—substituting proteins, for instance—and thus removing the cause of the reaction. With the rotation diet, foods are alternated on a weekly or monthly basis and ones that have been eliminated are eventually re-introduced with the idea that a tolerance might have been built against the allergen. Caution is always required with this sort of plan in case the allergy has not been resolved and an adverse reaction occurs.

Other alternative nutritionally related therapies include the introduction of digestive enzymes such as bromelain and other proteolytic enzymes. The theory behind this practice is that if the problematic proteins are ingested, the reaction will be reduced. No concrete evidence yet indicates this is successful.

Another alternative treatment is thymus extract, a supplement derived from a cow’s thymus gland. Some preliminary results have shown that by normalizing the body’s immune function, could be a successful means for treating food allergies.

Probiotics, the bacteria considered amenable to preventing or treating respiratory allergies and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, have not been found useful in treating the allergy to cow’s milk in infants.

In the unusual case of an exercise-induced food allergy brought on by the increased body temperature resulting from exercise, simply avoiding food a couple of hours before exercising has shown to eliminate the allergy.

When otherwise healthy food items must be eliminated from a diet due to allergies, nutrition that includes healthy foods that will enhance the body’s immune system are essential to maintaining health.

How Can Nutrition Help Food Allergies?

With serious food allergies, or even those not considered life threatening, a nutritious and healthy diet might be more difficult to manage. Understanding the balance of the foods that do not trigger allergic reactions is essential. Knowing how to substitute other foods that supply the necessary nutrients that might be present in one of the trigger foods is crucial. A balanced diet is essential to building health and the optimum immune system through which that health might be attained. Eliminating processed food that might also trigger allergic reactions or intolerance to certain foods can also be helpful.

Reading labels, asking questions in restaurants, and being observant to symptoms can offset the dangers of food allergies. Providing a daily diet through good nutrition will help ensure health and safety.

What is Nutrition?

Nutrition is more than simply a healthy diet that includes whole food and focuses on feeding practices. It includes all the processes associated with what sustains human life—all which supplies, develops, and sustains the capabilities and functioning so that a human can function at the highest possible level. Both food and non-food sustenance help define nutrition for the human body.

Certainly a foremost aspect of nutrition is a healthy diet of food that includes the nutrients necessary to maintain optimal health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and health care professionals, offer the guidelines that indicate a healthy diet includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water constitute. The USDA introduced the Food Guide Pyramid (since 2005 known as My Pyramid) to assist people in determining a healthy diet for themselves and their families. Other groups, particularly holistic nutritionists have expanded those nutritional guidelines, and have introduced various pyramids that include ethnic, vegetarian, vegan and other special diets menus.

Non-food factors of nutrition, also vital to the healthy maintenance of the human body include:

  • Sunlight, and natural light
  • Fresh air and the oxygen — the most vital ingredient in maintaining the functioning of the body and its processes
  • Exercise, play, and recreation
  • Rest and relaxation
  • Sleep
  • Emotional well-being
  • Overall body condition

When individuals suffer from food allergies, a serious challenge is posed to maintaining a healthy diet—especially those that involve dairy products or tree nuts. In addition, a diet that does not provide the necessary energy it takes to maintain physical health will compromise a person’s well being and immune system.

What are Food Allergies?

Food allergies are a reaction triggered by the body’s immune system, caused by an ingredient in a specific food, usually a protein. The most common food allergies include the following:

  • Eggs
  • Shellfish, such as shrimp, lobster, and crab
  • Fish
  • Tree nuts, such as walnuts and pecans
  • Peanuts

Additional food allergies commonly found in children include:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

Chocolate is not usually a cause of a food allergy despite common myth. Food intolerances are not allergies because they are not triggered by the immune system and the release of histamine. When food intolerance exists, eating small amounts might be tolerated. In the case of a true food allergy, even a tiny, microscopic amount of the food will produce an allergic reaction.

The most common signs and symptoms of food allergies can include:

  • Tingling mouth
  • Hives, itching, or eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, throat or other body part
  • Wheezing that indicates troubled breathing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting

What causes Food Allergies?

A food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system identifies a specific food or food component as a harmful substance—even when it normally would not be. The immune system then triggers certain cells to produce immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies that are meant to fight the food or food component—determined to be the allergen. Even the smallest amount of that food will trigger the IgE antibodies and signal the immune system to release histamines and other chemicals into the bloodstream. It is these substances that trigger the allergic reaction, with histamines as the primary cause of symptoms, including anaphylactic shock.

A number of risk factors for developing food allergies include:

  • Family history—increased risk if allergies such as hay fever, asthma, hives, or eczema are common
  • Age—more common in children, especially in infants and toddlers due to a digestive system that is not yet fully developed enough and more likely to absorb food or food components that trigger allergies.

A physician or other medical professional will administer tests to determine whether or not a person has food allergies. Those tests will include:

  • Elimination diet—eliminating certain suspect foods from the diet
  • Description of symptoms
  • Physical examination
  • Skin test
  • Blood test

Finding a Nutritional Specialist

Food allergies, or suspected food allergies, can be life threatening. Consulting your primary physician is recommended when treating this potentially serious condition.

Seeking the advice of a nutritionist is also part of a healthy plan for action. The American Holistic Medical Association available at: http://www.holisticmedicine.org can assist with menu planning. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health offers guidelines that will help you choose a nutritionist or other alternative medicine specialist.

Additional Resources

"FAQs about Food Allergies." The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

"Food Allergies" from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

"Tips to Remember: Food Allergy" from the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.

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