Food allergies: Symptoms, allergens, testing and nutrition tips

Food allergies: Symptoms, allergens, testing and nutrition tips By  for Nutrients

An allergy occurs when your body reacts to a substance as if it were toxic. To date, experts still don’t know what causes food allergies, or why more people have them now compared to 30 years ago.

If you think you may have food allergies, get tested, learn to recognize symptoms of an allergy and avoid your food triggers.

In America, recognized food allergies affect at least 7.6 percent of children and 10.8 percent of adults. Unfortunately, some people with food allergies either don’t know they have them or haven’t reported them. This means the exact number of people suffering from some degree of allergic reaction to otherwise perfectly safe foods is probably higher.

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Allergies aren’t just annoying. In some cases, they can even be potentially life-threatening.

Food allergies: What are they and what triggers them?

A food allergy is an immune response to a specific protein in food. To qualify as an allergen, the food must be normally harmless for most people.

In short, an allergy occurs when your immune system overreacts and rejects substances that otherwise would not be a problem.

When you eat a food that you are allergic to, your immune system produces antibodies to surround, neutralize, destroy and eliminate the allergen. This reaction is usually a good thing because it helps protect you from a cold or an infection.

The antibodies then travel to cells that release various chemicals that cause allergic symptoms. These symptoms often occur in your nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, stomach lining or skin.

Allergies that may be immediately life-threatening often manifest within minutes of eating your trigger food or allergen.

There are two basic allergy pathways: One that acts quickly involves an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). The non-IgE pathway can take at least several hours or even longer to happen.

Allergies are different from food sensitivities and intolerances. Food sensitivities usually trigger a subtle immune response, like fatigue, joint pain and rashes. Meanwhile, food intolerance tends to be exclusively gastrointestinal in nature.

Common food allergy symptoms

A major allergic reaction may cause a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis.

In America, at least one in 50 people experience anaphylaxis from food and other causes. Food allergy symptoms usually occur within five to 30 minutes, or sometimes even up to one hour, of coming into contact with the allergen.

Food allergy symptoms can include:

  • Hives
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Red rash that is usually itchy
  • Severe lowering of blood pressure and shock, a.k.a. anaphylactic shock
  • Swollen throat or other areas of the body
  • Tingling in hands and feet
  • Weak pulse
  • Welts
  • Wheezing, trouble breathing, or trouble swallowing

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency, but it can be treated with an epinephrine autoinjector (e.g., an EpiPen) until you can reach emergency medical care.

Not all allergic reactions are severe. Non-anaphylactic reactions may include:

  • Gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, indigestion, nausea, passing excessive amounts of gas, or vomiting
  • Hives
  • Itchy, teary eyes
  • Red, itchy skin
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or itchy nose
  • Swelling

Food allergies can affect both children and adults, although they are more common in children.

Sometimes, people can outgrow childhood food allergies, like eggs or cow’s milk. However, other food allergies persist through adulthood, such as those triggered by fish, peanut, tree nut and shellfish allergies.

Some adults can also develop new allergies throughout their lives.

Major food allergens to avoid

Since an allergy is an overreaction of your immune system, almost any kind of food could trigger an allergic response.

These foods are responsible for 90 percent of allergic reactions in the U.S. and the U.K.:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish (including mollusks and crustaceans)
  • Soybeans
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

In 2021, American immunologists added a new food to the list of major food allergens. On April 23, 2021, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act was signed into law. It declared sesame as the ninth major food allergen recognized by the government.

To give food manufacturers time to comply with the new labeling requirements, the change will take effect on January 1, 2023.

Food allergy testing

If you’ve had an allergic reaction to food or if you think you may have a food allergy, consult an allergist to help confirm your condition. They can help you devise a treatment plan and teach you what to do in case of anaphylaxis. (Related: Got an egg allergy? Iron treatment may help, says research.)

Allergists often start with a skin prick test where they take a small amount of extract made from the suspected allergenic food and place it directly on your skin, like your back or arm. If a raised bump or small hive develops within 20 minutes, you may have a food allergy.

Since a skin prick test often has a high false positive rate, it is mainly used to rule foods out. The results will then be used to form a list of possible allergens to investigate further.

While researchers have yet to fully understand what causes allergies, one popular theory on what causes food allergies is the “hygiene hypothesis.” According to this theory, growing up in very clean and “antibacterial” environments can make it hard for your immune system to find out what’s harmful and what’s not.

Data supports this theory, especially since children growing up in larger households have a lower incidence of allergic disease compared to children from smaller families.

Environmental exposures early in life, like growing up on a farm and living with companion animals, are also linked to a diverse bacterial experience and reduced risk of allergic sensitization. Children who live with pets like cats and dogs when they are infants are also less likely to develop allergies as they get older. (Related: Prevent asthma by cleaning less: Increased exposure to allergens and pet dander actually reduces risk.)

Diet and nutrition tips for people with food allergies

While some people can outgrow food allergies by adulthood, there’s no known cure for food allergies.

Fortunately, if you have food allergies you can make lifestyle changes to diminish their impact on your daily life. The most important one is to avoid the foods you’re allergic to. Even if it’s a healthy food that is usually recommended as part of a balanced diet, look for safer alternatives.

Always check food labels 

When buying groceries, you should always read food labels carefully, especially when buying something you have never tried before. Common food allergens like eggs, nuts and soy are very prevalent in the industrialized food supply.

Processed foods are also a common cause of allergies because they contain many food additives. Processed items tend to include hidden proteins from eggs, milk and soybeans to enhance flavor and increase the protein content.

Foods like dips and sauces often contain peanuts or tree nut products for texture and flavor.

Be careful when ordering food at restaurants

While it’s possible to eat out if you have food allergies, you need to be more careful.

Always let the restaurant staff know about your allergies. Ask if the food you want to eat contains food triggers.

Always bring your allergy meds

Even if you’re very careful when buying groceries or dining out, it’s better to always have your allergy meds with you in case of an emergency.

You can also try safer natural alternatives like herbs or a saline spray.

Increase your intake of dietary fiber

If you have food allergies, it’s important to give your immune system its best chance to stay balanced and responsive. You can do this by eating a lot of whole foods and avoiding processed foods.

A fiber-rich plant-based diet can’t cure food allergies, but it may offer some benefits. Not getting enough dietary fiber may play a role in the development of food allergies.

Introducing more fiber in your diet may also help with symptoms of allergic reactions. Research suggests that a high-fiber diet had a significant impact on gut bacteria, immune system cells and allergic reactions to food compared to a low-fiber diet.

Fruits and veggies contain their own type of fiber. Consuming lots of fiber and different kinds of fruits and veggies keeps “good” or beneficial bacteria in your gut healthy, which then helps keep the lining of your gut intact. This can help lower the risk of allergic reactions to food.

Fruits and vegetables also contain beneficial antioxidants that help your microbiome thrive.

Allergic conditions are characterized by inflammation and antioxidants help protect against inflammation triggers. Data from epidemiological studies have found that the greater the amount of antioxidants in the diet, the less frequent and severe the symptoms of allergic reactions.

Choose healthy allergen alternatives

After confirming your food triggers, use healthy alternatives to ensure that you get the nutrients you need to stay healthy.

If you are allergic to tree nuts, try seeds. If dairy products are an issue, eat plant-based alternatives to cheese and milk.

Learn More – Nutrients

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