Inconvenient at best, debilitating at worst, food allergies are on the rise. But, once diagnosed, you needn’t miss out on nutrition – or enjoyment. We report on how to make healthy diet choices
Think back to when you were at school. You probably can’t remember many kids with allergies. But throw a children’s party today and the RSVPs will come complete with lists of what’s off-limits at tea-time, and it isn’t uncommon for children to have adrenaline pens on standby.
‘In the UK, 5% of children and 1% of adults have a food allergy,’ says Dr Adam Fox, a paediatric allergy consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and director of King’s College London Allergy Academy. ‘Our clinics are swamped.’
As one of the world’s top three countries for allergy incidence, the UK has an estimated 21 million sufferers of at least one, whether it’s asthma, eczema or an allergy to a specific food. This number increases by 5% a year – and hospital admissions for food allergies have soared by 500% since 1990. So why the big increase?
There are several theories, says Dr Fox. One emerging area of research suggests low levels of vitamin D predispose people to allergy. ‘Then there’s the “hygiene hypothesis”, he explains. ‘Lack of exposure to pathogens in early childhood means our immune systems aren’t as strong.’ Other theories suggest links with the use of paracetamol and antibiotics, vaccinations, Caesarean sections, our modern processed diets and overcautious weaning. ‘The likelihood is there’s no single cause of the allergy epidemic – rather, it’s a result of many factors combined. We do know it must be largely environmental – the growth has taken place over too short a time for it to be a genetic shift.’
The likely culprits
In the UK, the most common food allergies are to milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, wheat and soya. Newer allergens include sesame seeds, kiwi fruit, citrus and bananas. Commonly, food allergies are diagnosed in the first year of a person’s life. ‘In most cases, children grow out of allergies to milk and eggs,’ says Dr Fox. ‘Whereas problems with peanuts and fish are normally lifelong.’ You’re more likely to develop an allergy if one of your parents has asthma, eczema, hay fever or a food allergy, and you inherit the atopic (allergic) gene.
Symptoms to watch for ‘If you’re allergic to a food, symptoms will appear within a couple of hours of eating just a small amount – usually within 20 minutes,’ says Dr Fox.
These may include:
*hives, welts and/or a rash on the skin that may be itchy and sore
*nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or abdominal pain
*swelling, particularly around the eyes and lips
*a runny nose, sneezing wheezing or a cough
*anaphylaxis – swelling of the tongue and throat,which can potentially constrict breathing. This is the most serious reaction of all, and requires urgent medical attention.
‘The symptoms of food allergies will occur every time the food is eaten,’ says Dr Fox. If they occur irregularly, it’s unlikely to be an allergy, but you should see your doctor to rule out an intolerance or other causes.