Twenty years ago, when invited to a social gathering, it seems like you could slap together any gluten-packed, dairy-dusted casserole and call it good. These days, however, it can feel like the “luck” in your neighborhood potluck refers to your chances of accidentally baking up a disaster for a food allergy sufferer. You may have even experienced it yourself: Something you used to eat with blissful abandon now troubles your tummy or causes you to break out in hives.
Statistics back up the fact that food allergies are on the rise. Between 1997 and 2011, allergic reactions to food rose 50 percent in children. The most notable increase was in peanut allergies; from 1997 to 2008, this particular doozy tripled in American kids. (Hence the ubiquitous peanut-free classrooms you may see at your kid’s school.) And, troublingly, the recent increase doesn’t equate with family history. “Anyone (young and old) can develop a food allergy, even without a family history,” says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and chief medical officer of Before Brands, whose products are devoted to “transforming the world’s relationship with food allergies.” “In fact, two out of every three children who develop a food allergy do not have a parent with one,” she notes.
Experts are still teasing apart reasons for the jump in food allergies, and it’s possible we may never know all the underlying causes. Still, several theories have emerged to explain this serious public health issue — and shed light on what we can do about it. Here’s a look at some of the top possible causes.
1. Western Diet: We all know a steady diet of processed and fast foods doesn’t do our health any favors. But too many calories and too much saturated fat, salt, and refined sugar don’t just add to our waistlines. It appears they may also have an effect on our immune system, making us more susceptible to developing allergies. A 2014 study found that over-consuming these classic Western diet offenders led to increased inflammation and reduced control of infection — both of which run down our immunity. “There is enough quality, direct human evidence,” say the study’s authors, to conclude that many 21st-century dietary choices may be a root cause for the increase in allergies.
2. Lack of Early Exposure: Not long ago, pediatricians told new parents not to feed peanuts, shellfish, and other common allergens to their babies. This well-intentioned advice was based on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) 2000 guidelines. But now the tables have turned. “The AAP has now reversed that recommendation based on new information,” says Dr. Jay M. Portnoy, MD, Pediatric Allergist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. The latest evidence shows that feeding kids allergenic foods actually helps ward off negative reactions — and that not doing so probably did more harm than good. “It is clear that early introduction of peanuts (and probably other foods like milk, egg, soy, and wheat) can prevent food allergy, and that delaying their introduction probably increases the risk of food allergy,” he says.
3. The Hygiene Hypothesis: Heard of the hygiene hypothesis? This concept, first introduced back in 1989, proposes that our modern obsession with cleanliness may actually compromise our immune system. While evidence is somewhat conflicting, many experts point to a hyper-hygienic environment as a culprit behind the spike in food allergies. “Exposure to germs at an early age can reduce the risk of developing allergies and asthma,” says Dr. Portnoy. “Not to say that kids should eat dirt, but they should not be kept in too sterile an environment, either.”
Having a pet around the house may also help, since animals come with their own set of bacteria — and, yes, even their own dirt. “Research shows that children with pets in the home (who track in dirt and bacteria) have less allergy risk,” says Dr. Swanson.
4. More C-Section Births: An increase in C-section births may also have contributed to rising rates of food allergies. As of October 2018, 21 percent of all babies were delivered by Caesarean section, up from just six percent in the 1990s. Several studies have linked C-section births to a predisposition toward food allergies, possibly because these babies don’t get exposed to their mothers’ good bacteria as they would in a vaginal birth.
5. Increased Awareness: In light of the panic around gluten and dairy in the last decade, it can almost seem like food allergies have become trendy. (Intriguingly, a recent report found that half of people who believe they have a food allergy really don’t.) Could it be that there aren’t more actual allergies these days, just more awareness, media coverage, and public interest?
In an age where health information is just a click away — and social media can blow anything out of proportion — it’s certainly possible. “We are seeing patients with very mild reactions (lip swelling, a rash on the cheeks, just not liking a food) who would have never presented before the hype regarding food allergies encouraged them to do so,” says Dr. Portnoy. “Now everyone is terrified about everything, including what they eat.”
If you believe you have a food allergy, visit an allergist or immunologist to find out for sure. And in the meantime, load up on a healthy diet and don’t be afraid to get a little dirty. It just may do your immune system a world of good.
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