Understanding Food Allergies

You’ve just had a delicious chocolate nut brownie and now you appear to be having a severe asthma attack.  Come to find out the nuts included peanuts, to which you are highly allergic. If this scenario sounds familiar you are likely to be one in a small group of people who suffer from a true food allergy.

A food allergy is when your immune system mistakenly identifies a food component, usually a protein, as a foreign substance that must be attacked.  The body defends itself with anti-bodies that trigger the release of histamines, causing an array of responses – such as sneezing, watery eyes, upset stomach or hives — which occur almost immediately, usually within 45 minutes, of eating the food.  With mild allergies, symptoms can range from a tingling in your mouth to a runny nose.  Severe cases can cause throat swelling, difficulty breathing or even death, unless immediate medical attention is sought.

The foods that are most highly allergic for adults are peanuts (legumes), fish, shellfish, and eggs.  Infants and young children are usually allergic to these same foods, but they are also more likely to be allergic to corn, soy, milk, wheat, and citrus.  The truth is that very few people suffer from a true allergic or immune response.  The incidence of food allergy is age related, with 80% of all food reactions occurring in the first year of life. The good news is most children outgrow these allergies by the time they are three years old.

More common, however, but often misunderstood as a food allergy, is a food sensitivity.  Food sensitivities are much harder to diagnose because they often have the same symptoms as food allergies and are often brought on by many of the same foods, it’s just the mechanism causing them that’s different.  Often the symptoms of a food sensitivity don’t appear for 12 to 48 hours after eating the food making it quite difficult to determine the offending food.  For example, you eat a food containing wheat and within an hour, a rash develops.  Immediately, you would think you’re allergic to wheat.  But, perhaps the rash is caused by the corn tortillas you might have eaten the night before.  Instead of the immediate reaction from anti-bodies like in a true food allergy, when you have a sensitivity, a different kind of delayed immune reaction happens causing things like digestion difficulty, joint pain, respiratory problems, and even low energy or difficulty concentrating.
Among the most common foods to cause this kind of reaction are milk and dairy products, products that contain wheat, yeast and corn, chemicals such as caffeine, histamines in cheeses and fermented foods, and serotonin in tomatoes and “night shade” vegetables such as eggplant.

A sub-set of food sensitivities are reactions called food intolerances, which affect the digestive system.  The most common offenders are dairy products, wheat, and certain sweeteners such as fructose, sorbitol or malitol .  The most common intolerance is lactose — or the natural sugar found in dairy products.  This intolerance is due to deficiency of the digestive enzyme lactase, necessary to digest lactose, and can cause abdominal bloating, cramping, gas, and diarrhea.

A food intolerance is the easiest of these ailments to deal with because you can probably eat the problematic food less frequently or in smaller quantities and your symptoms will probably disappear.  Or, you can take a supplement containing the enzymes that your body lacks and continue eating the offending food.  An exception to this however, would be if your intolerance is to the gluten found in wheat or other grains. To eliminate the problem, you have to eliminate the food.

If you do have a food sensitivity, one way to try to figure out the foods you react to, is to keep a food diary.  Write down what you eat and how you react to it.  Over time, you can figure out any correlation through your journal entries.  A better way is to try one of several types of elimination diets.  You can work with a nutritionist utilizing one of these diets to determine the specific foods that give you problems.

Avoidance is key – not only the offending foods, but also potential triggers. Because food sensitivities appear to be genetic, they don’t necessary manifest themselves unless the susceptibility is triggered in some way.  Some of the triggers include stress, a compromised immune system, and premature introduction to or an over consumption of the problematic foods.

There are, however, ways to reduce susceptibility and avoid foods that might cause you problems.  And, if you are truly allergic, it is imperative to avoid the offending foods at all cost, as even trace amounts may cause a severe reaction.

Learn to read food labels because many potential allergens are hidden in foods, often because they are designated on the label under different names (and in foods where you would least likely expect them).  For example “milk” appears as “casein” on the label and is often found in canned tuna to make it “chunky”, and  “binders”, and “emulsifiers” found in many processed foods are actually “egg”.  You should also take care to avoid foods that have been prepared or processed using equipment that was used to process foods that you are allergic to. This is common with many nuts and nut butters that have more than likely been in contact with the same equipment used to process peanut products.

Avoid introducing allergy-producing foods to infants and young children, because their immune and gastrointestinal systems are still developing. And don’t forget, if you are breastfeeding, you should avoid common allergens such as milk, eggs, fish and peanuts from your own diet.  When introducing solid food, start with rice and oat cereals rather than wheat, veggies, with the exception of legumes (foods in the bean and pea family, including peanuts) and non-citrus fruit juices.  Introduce new foods slowly and only one every several days so if your child does have a reaction, you will know which food caused it.  Again, most children outgrow their food allergies; however, great care should be taken when reintroducing the offending food.

The good news is, even if you do discover one of your favorite foods is causing you problems, in many cases you don’t have to give it up completely.  You may be able to tolerate it if you just eat it less frequently or in smaller portions.

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