Nutritional Help for Food Allergies

Four simple strategies to help lessen and protect against food reactions.

Top 8 Food AllergensAsk the Nutritionist

by Melissa Diane Smith

Q: My allergic daughter keeps having reactions to foods labeled “allergen-free” – and she’s developing new food allergies to foods she never was sensitive to before! It’s scary, and it’s frustrating to know what to feed her. Is there anything I can do with her diet to protect her from reactions to foods and prevent her from developing new allergies to even more foods?

– Monica S., Atlanta, GA


Yes. Whether for true acute food allergies or delayed-onset food sensitivities or intolerances that lead to uncomfortable symptoms, try these four nutrition strategies to minimize reactions to foods and prevent the development of new ones.

  1. Eat unprocessed whole foods.

Avoid processed foods with long lists of ingredients, and be careful about the “allergen free” products you buy. It’s shocking to learn, but a 2008 report by the Chicago Tribune found that an alarming number of products sold as “allergen-free” actually contain harmful amounts of allergens, which can cause serious reactions in allergenic people.

The best way to steer clear of hidden allergens is to buy foods in their whole food form – i.e., celery, apples, peas. If you have a reaction to a food in its whole food form, then you know it’s actually caused by that food and not any hidden chemicals or ingredients in it.

If you must buy processed convenience foods, purchase those with a short list of whole-food ingredients that you know don’t cause reactions, and look for products that are manufactured in allergen-free facilities. If you or your child has severe food allergies, it’s best to call or write manufacturers and ask specific questions to check on the safety of their products.

  1. Pay attention to food families.

Foods are categorized into botanical food families. If you’re allergic to one member of a food family (say, walnuts), it’s more likely you could react to other members of that same food family (say, pecans).

Some nut-sensitive people unnecessarily avoid foods like nutmeg, water chestnuts, or coconut that have “nut” in their name, but they come from completely different food families. Therefore, in addition to strictly avoiding the foods you know cause adverse reactions, it’s worthwhile to get to know food families (easily found on the Internet) and pay attention to whether you experience adverse reactions to foods that are related to your known allergens.

  1. Try a rotation diet.

When you avoid foods that cause reactions, it’s easy to overeat substitutes for those foods. Unfortunately, any food, if eaten repetitively, can cause food allergies. A rotation diet – or “rotating” your foods – is a system of eating biologically related foods on the same day and then waiting at least four days before eating them again. It helps control food allergies, protect against developing new ones, and allow you to more easily identify allergies to foods for which you may not have suspected were problems.

If you eat a food on Monday, for example, by Friday, when you eat it again, the antibodies your body makes specifically for that food will be diminished. Therefore, you will realize you are reacting to it, even though you did not have obvious symptoms when you ate it on a daily basis. Another big bonus of a rotation diet is that it naturally helps you eat a more diverse diet.

  1. Avoid GMOs and eat organic as much as possible.

Several lines of research link genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and synthetic pesticides with food allergies. Consider that:

  • The very process of creating a GMO can lead to the formation of new foreign proteins, which can act as allergens. As far back as 1996, researchers found that inserting a foreign gene into the DNA of a plant could turn a nonallergenic food into an allergy-producing food.
  • Mice fed the Bt toxin (found mainly in insecticide-producing genetically modified corn) not only reacted directly, but also became sensitive to formerly harmless compounds.
  • Animal studies suggest that eating GMOs can lead to imbalances in gut bacteria and intestinal permeability – conditions that are linked to food allergies.
  • Research also has found that people exposed to higher levels of certain germ- and weed-killing pesticides may be more likely to develop food allergies. And some people who develop what seem like severe allergic reactions to a food actually react to the pesticide residues in the food.

For these reasons, try removing GMOs from your diet and going organic in addition to steering clear of your food allergens. A growing number of people have experienced noticeable improvements in reactions to foods by doing this. Some have even reported that they can eat non-GMO, organic varieties of foods that they normally react to without experiencing adverse symptoms.

Finally, avoiding your allergens while combining these four nutrition strategies can be tricky. Seek guidance from a nutritionist or healthcare professional who specializes in food allergies such as myself if you need help.

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