Food Allergies and Intolerances

Food allergies affect 12 million Americans, more than 3 million of whom are children. Food intolerances affect even more Americans. This article contains information on what we know about food allergies, the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance, and what we can do to prevent food allergies.

Food allergies and intolerances can make something as simple as sitting down to a family meal difficult. It can require careful label reading and cooking with different ingredients.

Most Common Food Allergens:

  • Dairy
  • Egg
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, etc.)
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy
Most Common Food Intolerances:
  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts

What is a food allergy?

Food allergies occur when the body makes a mistake. Your immune (say: IHMYOON) system usually protects you from bacteria and viruses that make you sick. But if you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly thinks a food is harmful and releases chemicals and histamines (say: HISS-TUH-MEAN). These chemicals trigger the symptoms of an allergic reaction. What are some of the symptoms of a food allergy reaction? The most common symptom of a food-allergy reaction is hives. Other symptoms can include one or more of the following:

  • Tingling in the mouth
  • Swelling in the tongue and throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Eczema
About 1 in every 25 kids have food allergies.

Can children outgrow food allergies?

About half of the children who develop a food allergy during the first year of life outgrow it by the time they are 2 or 3 years old. Milk and soy allergies are more often outgrown than other food allergies.

Call 911 IMMEDIATELY if you suspect your child is having an allergic reaction that is making him wheeze or have difficulty breathing.

Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance:

You may know someone that gets an upset stomach, gas, bloating, or diarrhea if they have any type of dairy products. They may say, "I love ice cream but it doesn’t love me." This may be a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. One of the most common food intolerances is Lactose Intolerance.

How do I know the difference?

Lactose Intolerance is different than a milk allergy. An intolerance is typically when your digestive system has trouble processing foods that you have eaten. With a food intolerance many people can have a small amount of the food and still feel fine or have a small amount of gastric upset. With a food allergy, even a small amount can cause a reaction of the immune system. Someone who is allergic to a food will typically react to it in a very short time. Someone who has a food intolerance may not react for several hours. The symptoms of both can be very similar. They include hives, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping. You can see that knowing the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance is tricky. Help your doctor make a correct diagnosis by keeping good notes and a food diary if possible.

Keep a Food Diary

If you think you have a food allergy or intolerance, keep an accurate food diary for a couple of weeks. This will help your doctor with a correct diagnosis and plan of treatment. Write down what you ate, when you ate it, and how long after you ate it that you got a negative reaction. Of course if are having very severe reactions after eating a food, forget the diary and go to a doctor who can begin testing immediately. Some children may be at a higher risk for developing food allergies. Among the risk factors for food allergies are:

  • having a family member (especially a parent or a sibling) with food allergies
  • having other allergic type disorders, such as hay fever and/or asthma, or having family members with these disorders
  • having other food or formula allergies

Is your child at high-risk for food allergies?

If food allergies run in your family, you may be able to prevent or delay their development in your children by taking the following precautions when they are babies.

Preventing food allergies in children

  1. Breast-feed infants for at least one year. It is rare for a baby to be “allergic” to breastmilk. However, babies can be sensitive to certain foods a mom eats that passes through the milk.
  2. Delay introducing solid foods until your baby is 6 months old. The intestinal tract is more developed by then.
  3. Introduce solid foods one at a time to see if an allergic reaction occurs. Begin with those foods least likely to trigger an allergic reaction. Rice cereal and bananas are a good place to start.
  4. Delay introduction of potentially allergenic foods such as milk and eggs until your baby is 1 year old. Peanuts should be avoided until age 2, and longer if there is a history of food allergies in your family.

Early Head Start 
Nutrition News

June 2007

From your nutritionist, Ann