According to multiple sources including the American Academy of Pediatrics and several medical publications and books including “Healthy Child, Whole Child”, a nationally renown book co-written by one of our guest interviewees, Dr. Russ Greenfield, “Food allergies in children under five are rapidly increasing as are the number of children with multiple food allergies. Peanut allergies alone have doubled between 1997 and 2002. And in a recent study outlined by Health Day News, the number of children with food allergies has gone up 18 percent and the number seeking treatment for food allergy at emergency departments or hospitals has tripled since 1993. Read the article here for more details.
As a mom of three little ones (all under four) I find it alarming how many children I come across that have some sort of food allergy. And while there are many theories as to why food allergies are growing exponentially, the best thing we can do as moms is to understand the most common foods that cause them and be educated on the symptoms and warning signs so we can ask our pediatrician the right questions and avoid a dangerous and even life threatening situation with our little ones.
According to the book, parents often confuse true food allergies with food sensitivities and food intolerances so I thought it may be useful to define each one below so you can ask your doctor how to differentiate between them and what signs to look out for:
Food Allergy: Causes a significant immune response or reaction. The child’s defense system sees part of the food’s chemistry as a foreign invader of the system and reacts to it as if it were an attack creating symptoms such as nausea, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, wheezing, flushing, skin rashes and may even lead to fatal anaphylaxis. Food allergies tend to be most common in the first 2 years of life and can sometimes be outgrown. The most common foods that cause allergies are cow’s milk, wheat, eggs, nuts, corn, shellfish, and soy products. Children can also be allergic to additives commonly found in prepared food such as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), tartrazine (FD&C Yellow No.5), benzoic acid, and sulfites. If you suspect your child has a food allergy, your pediatrician can order a skin or blood test (RAST) to determine with substances your child is allergic to.
Food Sensitivities: While these are considered real and problematic, they are not true allergies. In this case, your baby or child may not feel right (complaining of stomach ache or feeling over tired or heavy) after eating certain foods. Although these can cause some of the same symptoms as allergies, the way the immune system responds is very difference in that the reactions may be delayed 12-48 hours which makes diagnosing more challenging. The most common foods that cause such sensitivities are milk, wheat, corn, aged cheese and food additives and the symptoms can include digestive issues, joint pain, rash, severe case of cradle crap, fatigue, nasal congestion, recurrent respiratory tract infections or breathing problems. Some experts even think that food sensitivities contribute to recurring ear infections, headaches, and even ADHD.
Food Intolerances: These are not an immune problem but more of a digestive issue that comes about when a baby or child is deficient in the required enzyme to decompose a particular type of food in the intestines. A very common example is lactose intolerance which is when there is a lack of the enzyme lactase that breaks down milk sugar. The most common foods that cause these are: dairy food, wheat, and the sweeteners fructose and sorbitol. Children with intolerances can continue eating these foods if they supplement with the required enzyme or eat them in smaller amounts less often.
Source: Healthy Child, Whole Child (pages 265-266).
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a good set of educational materials for parents who want to understand if their child has an allergy in a section called “How Do I Know If My Child Has a Food Allergy”?. Definitely check it out when you get a chance and ask your pediatrician about ways to be able to quickly tell if it’s indeed a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. An example of a food allergy’s repercussions is Celiac Disease which has also been increasing dramatically among children under five in the Unites States. In the case of Celiac Disease, which causes malabsorption (a failure of the bowels to absorb nutrients). It’s caused by an immune reaction to gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and, in some cases, oat products) that takes place in the intestine and stimulates the body’s immune system to attack and damage the lining of the intestine, preventing nutrients from being absorbed into the system. Unlike other allergies that may be outgrown, if your child does have celiac disease, she must remain on a gluten-free diet for her entire life, completely avoiding wheat, rye, barley, and, in some cases, oat products.
Best we can do as moms is to be informed and educated on these allergies and have good conversations with our doctors about it. If your child does indeed develop an allergy that requires treatment be sure to ask about all the factors that you need to consider such as symptoms and side-effects, treatment dosage, nutrition implications, etc. Read Expert Blogger, Dr Sheila Kilbane, MD’s post answering a mom’s question about cow’s milk allergy here.