Childhood food allergies

Increasingly common in the last few decades, the plight of the lunchbox creator parent is not envied. With more and more children diagnosed or suspected with allergies to foods, and more information available about the impact that certain foods have on our health, trying to keep lunchboxes peanut/nut free to keep other children in the class safe, while also wanting to provide healthy lunches and snacks that are low in sugar, gluten, fructose, packets, that aren’t stinky boiled eggs is a bit of a headache.

If your child has experienced colic or reflux as a baby, eczema, or had trouble putting on weight and growing, you may have looked into the potential cause of food intolerances or allergies.

Food allergy vs food intolerance – what’s the difference?

A true food allergy is an immune response to a protein in food (e.g gluten) that can cause symptoms like itching, rashes, eczema, hives, swelling, diarrhoea, nausea. Every time the trigger food is eaten, it will cause a reaction, within a couple of hours. Fortunately, most children grow out of food allergies by age 5, a relief for many parents.

A food intolerance is less obvious than a food allergy. The immune system isn’t activated, but similar symptoms can be experienced – and it can be harder to figure out because it can take up to 24 hours for problems to appear. A good example of a food intolerance is those who can’t digest lactose – if consumed it can create nausea, diarrhoea, and bloating, but doesn’t trigger the immune response, so is not an allergy.

Asthma and eczema

Some common signs of food allergies and intolerances are eczema and asthma. Rates of asthma and eczema are highly prevalent in New Zealand. The government reports that 15% of children under 14 are taking asthma medication and DermNet NZ states that 15 – 20 % of children are affected by eczema. You might be wondering how these conditions could be linked, and why your child is troubled by both? It turns out to be a genetic mutation, where the skin no longer forms the outer protective layer. People with this gene mutation are also found to have asthma. The connection with certain foods and diseases is more commonly recognised, so let’s dive into the best foods to avoid if your child (or you!) have asthma or eczema.

For children the most common food allergens are:

  • Milk (from cows)
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Seeds and treenuts
  • Shellfish

A naturopath would advise an elimination/challenge diet, where common food allergens are avoided for a few weeks and then reintroduced one at a time, and reactions monitored. If reactions occur, it’s best to avoid that food, and bring in some treatment options to improve the integrity of the bowel and overall immunity.

Another substance with strong correlations to asthma is sulphites. These are found naturally in foods, but can also be added as a preservative. In some people sulphites can trigger an allergic response. Foods that commonly include sulphites are dried fruit, wine, processed meats, fizzy drinks. The number to look out for on labels in order to avoid sulphites is anything from E220 to E228.

Reducing the risk of food allergies in your children

Goals of holistic healthcare are to look for triggers in the diet and lifestyle as well as improve the overall health of the body, in particular the immunity and the digestive tract. If children were born by caesarean section, their bowel flora can be less likely to protect them from developing food allergies. Nourishing the body with fermented foods and beneficial bacteria is key to good health.

Let them play with dirt! It’s important for young immune systems to have exposure to certain germs and infections in order to train the immune system. Over-cleaning doesn’t give our children’s immune system a chance to respond, and the hygiene hypothesis is that it becomes over-reactive.

When you start feeding solids, include foods that are common allergens before the first 12 months. Start solid food around 6 months, but not before 4 months. Breastfeed if possible for at least the first 6 months of life.