in the management of food allergies? Part 1

Written by Kaylee Slater | Accredited Practicing Dietitian at Grow Nutrition | Perinatal Dietitian | PhD Candidate 

The prevalence of food allergies is on the rise worldwide, with the highest incidence found in younger children. Many more children today have allergies than they did decades ago, in fact, the current statistics suggest that around 1 in 10 children have a food allergy, and this prevalence is growing by 1% each decade (Fujimura et al., 2019). 

What are food allergies? 

Food allergies occur when the immune system creates a specific protein (or allergen) in response to food it perceives as “harmful”. Once the immune system has created this allergy, an allergic reaction will occur upon consumption of that food.  

The most common food allergens are: 

  • Milk and milk products 
  • Seafood 
  • Peanuts 
  • Tree nuts (almonds, cashews for example) 
  • Soy and soy products 
  • Wheat 
  • Egg 
  • Sesame 

These common allergens cause 90% of all food allergies and therefore are the first we look out for. In some cases, children with food allergies will grow out of them as they get older. However, don’t hold onto this thought, this is not always the case and is often unlikely with seafood and peanut allergies. 

Diet plays a crucial role in not only the management of food allergy but also the development. Factors including the maternal diet, the microbiome and early life feeding have a role to play in the prevention of food allergies amongst our young population.

The role of nutrition in our immune system

As we know, an allergy (and particularly a food allergy in this case) is caused by a reaction from our immune system. Normally we can tolerate a variety of different foods, however, a food allergy will occur when our “tolerance mechanisms” are broken down. This leads to an inappropriate reaction to harmless substances, for example, food allergens.

When babies are born they are known to have ‘immature’ immune systems, however with age and appropriate nutrition through either breast milk or formula, their immune system starts to develop. Additionally, in the first few weeks of life, a baby’s microbiome will start to develop, this also playing a role in the development of their immune system and response to allergens.

Where are we going with this you ask! Well, nutrition plays a very important role in the development, maintenance and functioning of not only our digestive system but also our immune cells. In this article, we will discuss key nutrients; fats, zinc and vitamin D, whereas in the next issue we will delve into the popular probiotics!

Fat

Firstly we have different types of fats; saturated and unsaturated. Typically, western diets are rich in protein and animal foods, meaning that they are high in saturated fat and low in fibre-rich carbohydrates and essential fatty acids. This means they can negatively affect the microbiome and therefore the immune system. Unsaturated fats on the other hand, particularly essential fatty acids (EFA), for example, omega-3, are important in building up and regulating our immune system (Mazzocchi et al., 2017).

Increase intake of:

  • Oily fish e.g. salmon, tuna and mackerel
  • Chia and flax seeds
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Decrease intake of:

  • Confectionary foods
  • Large quantities of red meat and poultry

Zinc

Did you know that children with food allergies have a higher number of immune markets scattered throughout their digestive tract? Persistent exposure to these inflammatory immune markers can in fact lead to increased production of something we call free radicals. You may or may not have heard of these, but they can cause damage throughout our body and should be reduced by consuming a large number of antioxidants.

Where does zinc fit into this? Zinc is a trace element, needed in small amounts for a variety of important functions throughout our body. In terms of allergen protection, zinc helps to maintain the balance between free radicals and antioxidants in our body and therefore keep our body’s healthy! One study found that children with food allergies had lower concentrations of zinc and therefore a weaker antioxidant barrier (Mazzocchi et al., 2017).

Increase your intake of:

  • Shellfish
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dairy foods
  • Eggs

Vitamin D

Did you know that vitamin D plays a crucial role in the regulation of calcium and bone health in our bodies? Well, in the last decade researchers have also discovered the relationship between vitamin D and the immune system. Vitamin D in its active form can stimulate our immune system by enhancing the immune markers. It has also been shown to affect the tolerance of our immune system. Whilst further research is needed in this area, there is absolutely no harm in boosting your vitamin D (Mazzocchi et al., 2017).

Want to know the best way? Get in the sun (and don’t forget to put on sunscreen)! You can also pop mushrooms outside in the sun for 30 minutes or more and they will actually absorb vitamin D – try it with your kids!

Can our intake prevent allergies?

Absolutely! Here are some simple tips:

  • Eat a wide variety of foods during pregnancy and lactation: this will not only increase the nutrient quality of your diet but also expose your baby to a range of allergens before they are even born!
  • Don’t avoid common allergens during pregnancy: well unless you are allergic (that is a given), however avoidance of allergens only increases your baby’s chance of developing a food allergy!
  • Don’t hold back on introducing allergens to your baby: once they are ready for solids, start introducing the allergens! If you are nervous about this, contact your Doctor or Dietitian for some support and assistance.

What is next? 

Next issue we will release Part 2 of the role of nutrition in food allergies!  

The next issue will discuss probiotics and their role in our immune system and the risk of developing a food allergy. This will be the last issue from the food allergen series, so it is not to be missed! Plus the article will also give you some practical food swaps for your children if they are diagnosed with food allergies. These swaps will all be nutritious and provide your little one with a healthy alternative to commonly consumed foods. 

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