Managing Food Allergies

Sometimes, nutritional changes are motivated by the need to manage a food allergy. Food allergies are often discovered in childhood, but sometimes an allergy may develop in the middle of our lives without warning. In either case, a food allergy can be a minor annoyance or it can be severe–even life threatening.

Why do Food Allergies Happen?

Allergic reactions happen when a person ingests a protein that his or her immune system mistakenly identifies as a threat. The body then releases a flood of defensive chemicals, like histamine, to expel the allergen from the body. In mild cases, a food allergy may cause itching, swelling or hives. In severe cases, an allergy may lead to nausea, vomiting, cramping, a swollen tongue or throat, trouble breathing or a drop in blood pressure.

A food allergy can’t be cured, and the debate is ongoing as to whether or not allergies can be prevented.

Identifying and Managing Food Allergies in Children

Children may have flare-ups now and then that may or may not be a result of a food allergy. A doctor can perform a skin prick test or blood test on your child to determine if his or her blood contains immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. But the presence of antibodies doesn’t guarantee that a person will have a reaction every time he or she is exposed to an allergy-causing food. A full test will also account for a history of symptoms and may involve a food challenge, or a session of medically supervised eating.

Once an allergy is confirmed, the only sure method of avoiding a reaction is to avoid the food altogether. Cooking the offending protein will not render it harmless, though in some cases, allergic reactions to eggs and milk are reduced when the proteins are brought to very high temperatures and dispersed in baked goods. Also, some vegetable and fruit allergies are actually pollen-based, so cooking the food may reduce the reaction in this case.

While shopping for food, read ingredient labels carefully. Since manufactures change ingredient lists now and then, you may want to read the lists every time.

Identifying a Food Allergy in Yourself

Since allergic reactions to food happen within minutes, try an experiment: Limit yourself for a while to non-allergenic or hypoallergenic foods such as the following. Then re-introduce other foods one at a time. When you experience a reaction, you have your suspect. Meanwhile, keep a list of all the foods you eat.

Examples of hypoallergenic foods:

  • Fruits: Apples and pears
  • Grains, beans and legumes: Millet, quinoa, lentils and most beans, including navy, lima, kidney, garbanzo, pinto, black beans and peas
  • Meat: Lamb
  • Vegetables: Spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli.

Consider speaking with an allergist to help you identify food allergies and a dietitian to assist in identifying allergens in your foods and planning allergy free meals.

Living with a Food Allergy

Depending on the severity of the allergy, a food allergy can either be a bit of a pain, or it can affect your every food choice on a daily basis. For those with severe food allergies, dining out can be particularly challenging. Here are some tips for minimizing your risk when you don’t have control over the food being prepared:

  • Avoid buffets, or request a separate meal when at a buffet. Utensils and other preparation tools are often re-used at buffets and salad bars.
  • Carry a kit of treatment supplies in case of a reaction. This may include prescription or over-the-counter medication (such as an antihistamine), and an EpiPen.
  • If you’re dining out, it’s OK to call ahead and talk to the manager or chef about your dietary restrictions. This can allow them to prepare a meal in advance or let you know what options are available to you. The same goes for eating at a friend’s house. In either case, bring a snack or something to supplement the meal, in the event that you can’t eat what’s prepared.
  • Make sure your partner, family and friends know your allergies and how to spot–and respond to–an allergic reaction.

Resources

CNN.com. (2006). Living with food allergies. Retrieved September 13, 2010, from http://articles.cnn.com/2006-08-07/health/food.allergies.hel_1_food-allergies-allergen-common-triggers?_s=PM:HEALTH

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. (2010). Allergens. Retrieved August 27, 2010, from http://www.foodallergy.org/section/allergens

USFC Benioff Childrens Hospital. (2010). Managing food allergies. Retrieved August 27, 2010, from http://www.ucsfbenioffchildrens.org/education/managing_food_allergies/index.html