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Diet & Nutrition

The Facts About Food Allergies

Four simple strategies for avoiding and relieving symptoms.

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Q: My daughter keeps having reactions to foods labeled “allergen-free”-and she’s developing new food allergies to foods she never was sensitive to before! 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

The short answer is “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. If you have a reaction to a whole food, then you know it’s actually caused by that food, and not any hidden chemicals or other ingredients.

If you must buy processed convenience foods, purchase ones made with 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 product manufacturers and ask specific questions to check on the safety of their products.

2. 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 such as nutmeg, water chestnuts, or coconuts that have “nut” in their name, but which 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.

3. 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 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, protects against developing new ones, and allows you to more easily identify allergies to foods that 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, and any reaction to the food will be more obvious. Another big bonus of rotation is that it naturally helps you eat a more diverse diet.

4. Avoid GMOs and eat organic as much as possible

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

  • 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 seemingly develop severe food allergies may actually be reacting to 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 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 health care professional who specializes in food allergies if you need help.

The Big 8

When trying to determine which foods may be causing your symptoms, keep these well-known allergens in mind.

Note: Gluten, which is found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, is not considered one of the top eight food allergens by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. But it is typically included in the list of most reactive foods by holistic practitioners because people can develop celiac disease or nonceliac gluten sensitivity from eating it.