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Gain a clearer understanding of food allergies

Last Modified: June 13, 2023

Family Medicine, Nutrition & Recipes

Food allergy

According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), experts estimate that 32 million Americans are living with food allergies, including 5.6 million children under age 18. The prevalence of these symptoms and sufferers makes it imperative for more education around what a food allergy is and considerations for those in this population.

What is a food allergy?

When you have a food allergy and you eat that food, your body reacts as if the food is trying to harm you. It fights back by setting off an allergic reaction. A mild reaction is no fun, but it isn't dangerous. A serious reaction can be deadly.

Risk factors

There are some criteria that make allergies more common, including:

  • Family history – Allergies tend to be genetic, so you are more likely to have a food allergy if other people in your family have allergies like hay fever or asthma, atopic dermatitis, or allergies to pollen, mold or other substances.
  • Age – Food allergies are more common in children than in adults. If you develop a food allergy as an adult, you will most likely have it for life. The most common food allergies in adults are to peanuts, tree nuts, fish or shellfish.

Can you prevent food allergies?

Avoiding common offenders, like milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish and sulfites doesn't seem to prevent allergies. If you are a parent and have concerns about your infant’s potential to have a reaction, it’s best to speak with your pediatrician about introducing different food products. They can guide you safely through the process. If you are an adult, work with an allergist to discuss allergy testing.

Once you know your food allergies, the best way to prevent a reaction is to avoid the food that causes it and know exactly what to do if you or your child accidentally eat something that might trigger a reaction by creating an action plan

If you are a woman with a food allergy who is considering pregnancy and breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about what foods to avoid while pregnant or nursing. If you don't have a known food allergy, avoiding certain foods as a way to minimize your child’s risk of developing one is not recommended.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies be breastfed for the first year of life or longer. For babies with family members who have food allergies, ask whether and how to start foods that might cause allergies. Most allergic reactions in children are caused by eggs, milk, wheat, soy and peanuts. Breastfeeding only for at least four months may help prevent allergies to milk. If your baby is at high risk for allergies and you can't breastfeed, try a hydrolyzed milk formula, which contains milk protein altered to prevent allergies. There is no proof that giving your baby soy formula instead of cow's milk formula will prevent a food allergy in children at risk for food allergies.

What is a food intolerance?

A food Intolerance is a non-immune reaction to certain food components that occur when someone is lacking the digestive enzyme or nutrient responsible for breaking down those food components. We often see this linked to dairy, sugar, acidic foods and sulfites (wine), among others.

What are the symptoms of a food intolerance?

People with a food intolerance might experience the following:

  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms
  • Itching
  • Headache
  • Inflammation
  • General discomfort

What is a food sensitivity?

A food sensitivity is when foods such as eggs, dairy, yeast or fillers, trigger a reaction caused by an imbalance in the gastrointestinal system that is affecting the immune system. These reactions can be delayed by hours or even days.

What are the signs of a food sensitivity?

There are many, but some of the symptoms of a food sensitivity are:

  • Migraine or headache
  • Mood swings, anxiety or depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Changes in weight
  • Bowel movement changes
  • Rashes, acne or dry skin
  • Excessive sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Sinus problems





Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.

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