by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN and Rachel Mayan
It seems now more than ever, food allergies in our peers and children are a dime a dozen. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey, between 1997 – 2011 there was an 18% increase in reported allergies in children under the age of 18. An allergic reaction is when the immune system attacks a food protein that is mistaken as a threat to the body. Food allergies alone cause roughly 300,000 ambulatory-care hospital visit each year in children under 18.
Why has allergy prevalence risen?
There are a few possible reasons behind the “why” of food- and non-food-related allergy increases that scientists are still exploring and studying.
1). The “hygiene hypothesis”
We’re just too clean. This theory, cited by The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, suggests that our obsession with fighting and preventing bacteria has caused a decrease in germ exposure, which can actually be helpful in allowing our immune systems to distinguish between “good” and “bad” irritants. In the case of food allergies, without proper exposure to germs at a young age, the immune system could mistake a food protein as a harmful invasive germ.
2). The use of medicines and antibiotics
Research suggests that early use of antibiotics can change our bacterial flora, or the collective bacteria in our bodies, which impacts the development of allergy-related diseases like asthma. Other studies suggest overuse of antacids and stomach medication can alter our gastrointestinal tract, also creating more health problems.
3). Environmental changes
Climatologists note that 2000-2009 was the hottest decade to date, and temperatures could continue to rise by as much as 10 degrees in the next few decades. Longer growing seasons caused by a warmer climate increase the growth of ragweed, the primary trigger of hay fever.
Doctors like Dr. R. Sharon Chinthrajah of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University believe the cause of allergies are a result of multiple factors, and research is still being done to pinpoint the causes of recent changes.
Top Food Allergens
According to CNBC, approximately 90% of allergic reactions come from eight foods.
- Cow’s Milk
- Tree Nuts
Reducing the Risk of Allergies in Children
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months to reduce dermatitis and cow’s milk allergies.
- Solid foods should be introduced between the ages of 4 to 6 months of age. Introducing allergy-causing foods by 12 months may reduce the risk of developing food allergies.
- The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease recommends introducing peanut-containing foods as early as 4 to 6 months to prevent a peanut allergy.