Awareness is the key to tackle food allergies that could develop at any point in one’s life

Why is it that we can’t eat everything? It’s because we may be allergic or intolerant to some types of food, a trend that nutritionists say has been on the rise over the last few years, and which is causing them considerable concern. Chemicals and artificial preservatives used in food processing, aggressive farming techniques involving the overuse of pesticides and excess chlorine in tap water damage the gut, which in turn affects the immune system. Exposure of the body to these chemicals can trigger food allergies.

Some children are born lactose intolerant, but often an allergy is caused by exposure to chemicals they should not be exposed to. Allergy to milk, egg, fish, nuts, wheat and soya is common. Changing lifestyle also affects our immune system, especially as we are exposed to many diseases and harmful bacteria that can trigger allergies. Again, our immune system is impacted by the ageing process. As a result, adults are increasingly developing allergies for the first time, reacting to something that for years did them no harm. While food allergies cannot be cured, intolerance can sometimes be reversed.

What it is

“A food allergy is an adverse immune response to a specific food substance with characteristic symptoms experienced on consuming it. Food allergies are distinct from other adverse responses to food, such as intolerance, pharmacological reaction and toxin-mediated reactions,” says Varsha Gore, dietician and nutritionist in Mumbai. Substances responsible for causing food allergies are called allergens and stem from plant and animal sources, food contaminants, preservatives, colours, flavours or additives. Protein in the food is the most common allergen. Such allergies occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly identifies a protein as harmful. Some protein or fragments of protein are resistant to digestion and those that are not broken down in the digestive process are tagged by the Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These tags fool the immune system into thinking that the protein is an invader. The immune system, thinking the organism (individual) is under attack, sends white blood cells to attack the invader, and that triggers an allergic reaction. These reactions can range from mild to severe.

Another cause is antibiotic medication which reduces stomach acids. When stomach acid is reduced, food proteins are absorbed intact into the blood stream resulting in the development of food allergies. “Allergic responses manifest themselves on the skin in the form of itching, inflammation, oedema, blisters, pruritus, urticaria. Gastrointestinal manifestations are bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and vomiting. Respiratory symptoms are asthma, bronchitis or a sudden hoarseness of voice. Neurologic symptoms could take the form of migraine, muscle and joint pain, anxiety or sudden fatigue,” says Varsha. Life threatening responses require emergency intervention.

“Food allergies can affect children and adults of all races and ethnicity. Your risk of developing a food allergy is higher if you have a parent who suffers from any type of allergic disease like asthma, eczema, food allergies and environmental allergies such as hay fever,” says Mumbai-based nutritionist and fitness expert Swetha Jairam. Some food allergies could be lifelong, some may be outgrown. For instance, peanut allergy, fish and shell fish allergy are life-long, whereas egg, soy allergies may be outgrown.

Common allergens

In children, the most common food allergies are caused by consumption of cow’s milk, hen’s egg, peanuts, soybean and wheat. In adults, the common allergies are caused by peanuts, fish, crustaceans (such as shrimp, crabs and lobster), molluscs (such as clams, oysters and mussels), fruits and vegetables.

“When a child is diagnosed with a food allergy, it is mandatory for the child to completely avoid it and all products made from it. Some allergic reactions depend on the quantity of the allergen, but since it is hard for a professional to determine the exact quantity that will harm the child complete avoidance is always a safer option, as reaction would put the body in an emergency situation,” says Swetha.

If avoiding the food product causing the allergy results in vitamin and mineral deficiencies there are always substitutes for the same. Wheat is a tough ingredient to cut in one’s diet, especially when it comes to chapattis. But there are other grains that an individual with wheat allergy can consume such as amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa and tapioca. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor before making such dietary changes.

If you are allergic to gluten look for gluten-free baking powder. Use wheat-free pasta varieties instead. If your child is diagnosed as milk intolerant, consider soya milk. Do not worry about calcium; your child can get calcium from fruits and vegetables as well as fish. Milk extracts can also be present in biscuits and other packaged food items. So read labels carefully. Egg like milk may be a hidden ingredient in many foods such as fried foods served at restaurants, ice creams and desserts. The tough part is, telling which food may have hidden ingredients you are allergic to. If you are a person who is trying to manage an allergy, awareness is the key.

Diagnosis

Chances are that you would have diagnosed an allergy by the time your child is a year or two. If you or your child develops any of the symptoms discussed above or has any other feeling of discomfort after eating, bring it to the notice of your doctor. To confirm an allergy, your doctor will ask for a thorough report on where you have been and what you have eaten. The suspect allergy will further be confirmed by medical history, physical examination, range of blood tests, skin prick test, food diary, food tracking or elimination diets.

Managing an allergy

“It is important to be aware if one experiences sudden or repeated onset of an allergic reaction. Strategic planning and elimination of food is essential. Read labels carefully. Substitutes are available”, says Varsha.

“There’s isn’t any proven treatment that can prevent or completely relieve symptoms”, says Shwetha. But, living with an allergy is no longer as difficult as it was. With the availability of many food options, awareness and safe practices, you can steer clear of the symptoms.