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Food allergies, sensitivities & intolerances

Food allergies are a concern for most parents as the risks of exposure to an allergen can be fatal but are often misunderstood. Food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances are often believed to be all the same, but they all are entirely different as they define the different ways the body negatively reacts with food. Allergies are common, approximately 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 1 in 13 children or roughly two in every classroom. Also, about 40 percent of children are allergic to more than one food.

A food allergy is serious and can be life-threatening. It occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a food, identifies it as a harmful substance and triggers the body’s defense system to attack it. The reaction can occur within a few minutes to a few hours after exposure to the allergen and can cause mild to severe allergic reactions. Some of the mild symptoms may include hives, itching, digestive issues. A severe reaction called anaphylaxis, can cause trouble breathing, throat tightness, swelling, or loss of consciousness. It is important to note that reactions to the same food may not always result in the same reaction. Allergies can change overtime or be resolved.

While any food can cause an adverse reaction, there are eight common foods that account for 90% of all allergic reactions. These are identified under the ingredients list on food packaging labels in bold print. The common allergens are:

  • Milk

  • Eggs

  • Wheat

  • Soy

  • Peanuts

  • Tree nuts

  • Fish

  • Shellfish

It is important to verify your child’s allergy by an allergist with a skin prick test or a blood test. These tests may not be reliable as it may give you false positives. The best way to determine a true food allergy is to ingest the food under doctor’s supervision to identify an allergic reaction as everyone reacts differently although it may not be appropriate for severe allergies.

Prevention measures to avoid allergic reactions for your child:

  • Reading food labels very carefully, even if you have purchased the food a hundred times. Ingredients and manufacturing processes change without warning. So, making a habit of reading food labels is necessary.

  • When preparing food at home, avoiding cross-contact and cross-contamination with the food allergens.

  • Communicate with the day care center for your child’s needs & protocols.

  • If your child has been prescribed an auto-injector or an EpiPen, make sure that you and those responsible for the supervision of your child understand how to use it.

  • Be a good role model, empower your child to increase their sense of control by involving them in managing their allergy, such as learning to read food labels or how to use an EpiPen when age appropriate.

Food intolerances and sensitivities: Foods that cause gastrointestinal discomfort are often confused with food allergies. These are called intolerances & sensitives because the immune system is not causing the reaction. Food intolerances and sensitivities can also be tested in a blood test by an allergist, however, the best way to identify a food intolerance or sensitivity is by ingesting the food and determining the reactions it causes.

Food intolerances occur when the body has difficulty digesting a specific molecule in food that can cause gas, bloating or loose stools. Lactose intolerance is the most common food intolerance that is often confused with a food allergy. Lactose intolerance is when there is trouble digesting a carbohydrate called lactose that is found in dairy products. Food dyes or preservatives may also cause food intolerances. It is important to know that the body may be able to tolerate small amounts of an intolerant food, not causing any symptoms. Every individual needs to figure out what their body can or cannot tolerate.

Food sensitivities are when an individual experiences abdominal pain, gas & loose stools after eating a specific food. The best way to identify food sensitivity is to consume large quantities of a particular food and determine the body’s reaction. Start by eliminating certain foods and re-introduce them gradually according to the tolerance and examine if the symptoms reappear.

It is important to identify which foods to limit so that you don’t cut out foods that provide necessary nutrients for your child’s growth whether your child has food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity. For further guidance, contact your child’s food allergist & a registered dietitian.



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