Food allergies can trip up mealtime, children’s health: Here’s what to do about it
October 29, 2017
Megan Van Dorin would be the first to admit her children's health issues don't rise to the level of seriousness that they might with a food allergy. But this Johnstown mom also knows her children, who are from 4 to 11 years old, are affected by subtleties hidden in their daily diets.
"No one would die from eating something," she said. But she still spends a lot of time every day planning and preparing meals so they don't get sick. Her kids' symptoms vary, ranging from bloating, diarrhea and constipation — the stomach issues, she calls them — to skin rashes such as eczema.
'They're not living with grumpy kids'
Then there are symptoms that are less obvious.
"Sometimes they don't tell me why they're feeling badly, possibly because they don't understand what's going on," Van Dorin explained.
She tries to prevent headaches, crankiness and her daughter's increased asthma by avoiding wheat, gluten and dairy products. Van Dorin removed dairy from the family diet six years ago and eliminated gluten in the past four years. More recently she eliminated foods with artificial dyes produced from petroleum-based chemicals, noticing it helped make her kids calmer. They acted more maturely or were able to keep their emotions in control. Her children's teachers noticed the difference, reporting changes in classroom behavior.
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Van Dorin is on the receiving end of criticism from some, and she said people make judgments about what she feeds her family.
"Some people think (it's) mean that I limit what my kids eat, but they're not living with sick, grumpy kids." As a mother living with children who experience symptoms after eating certain foods, she believes that avoiding those foods is best for her family.
Dr. Erin Kempe treats both children and adults who have been diagnosed with food allergies. As an allergy and immunology specialist at Colorado Allergy and Asthma Center in Greeley and Fort Collins, Kempe said she understands part of her job is to lessen anxiety and empower her patients to not live in fear of their allergies.
Kempe said a food allergy is what occurs when people have reactions to what they eat that are "predictable with specific symptoms with each exposure or ingestion of the suspected food." Symptoms can be hives, swelling of lips or tongue, shortness of breath, wheezing or vomiting. Reactions can be immediate, as soon as 15 minutes after eating and up to two hours after. Ninety-eight percent of the pediatric allergies she treats encompass exposure to eight allergens: cow's milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. These foods all contain proteins that cause an overreaction to the food because the human body recognizes the food as something foreign and unsafe. Proteins interact with mast cells in our bodies, unlocking them and releasing histamine into the system. The affecting proteins in each one are different but exposure has the same effect.
If left untreated, then the reaction can pick up momentum, resulting in life-threatening anaphylaxis. This may present with hemodynamic instability with low blood pressure leading to poor oxygenation of organs. The person will often have difficulty breathing because of bronchoconstriction.
Food Intolerances on the rise
Between 2 percent to 10 percent of the population has a food allergy today, marking a general trend in increased allergy frequency and prevalence during the past 20 years. Kempe said while there is no known cause for the increase, the best hypothesis is hygiene. "We are too clean. By decreasing exposure to dirt and animals, our immune systems overreact to elements that are normal in our environment."
Kempe warns there is no such thing as a mild food allergy: it's a yes or no question. And if the answer is "yes," there are only two forms of treatment. First, prevent accidental exposure and second, understand what emergency treatment options are available and be prepared.
When considering steps for avoidance, it's important to avoid cross-contamination and be cautious handling ingredients during food prep, although soap and water will remove hard surface allergens. Eating a meal outside the home is possible as long as you are responsible and aware. Even so, eating out is a matter of personal preference, potentially heightening what is already a stressful situation. Reading food labels is imperative, as is informing restaurants about the allergy. Kempe encourages patients to ask questions when dining out.
If a reaction occurs, then be prepared with an Epinephrine Auto Injection, available in junior and adult doses based on weight.
"Food intolerances seem to be on the rise, though there's question as to why, and more research needs to be done on that," said Kelley Preston, a registered dietician nutritionist in Greeley. "Symptoms of food intolerance can be similar to food allergies, but tend to focus more on digestive symptoms. Whether your child has a diagnosed food allergy or they have discomfort after eating certain foods, it's best to avoid those foods."
Food, the Language of Love
Preston advises parents to not only read food labels but also to educate themselves on the different names for the food causing the immune response. Keep a close eye on nutrients in children's diets due to the restriction and find other foods to include. Above all, check with an allergist before consuming.
Preston and Van Dorin advise using the least ingredients possible. Van Dorin sticks to a Paleo diet, composed of meat, vegetables and potatoes. She avoids legumes and squash, and she limits egg intake. Even so, she finds a wealth of foodstuffs to feed her family well. Carrots, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and corn products all appear on her table. She recommends Enjoy Life and Simply Made brands for cookies, snacks and baking mixes.
It's difficult to segregate children from what others are eating, but it is the best choice for their health. If you suspect your child may have a food allergy, then see a licensed physician for testing. Allergy testing typically involves skin tests with some blood testing and can be completed within a day or so.
Finding quality of life is the most important thing parents can teach children. More than anything, food is a social thing.
"Food is how people show love, it's cultural, it's personal and emotional," Van Dorin said. "Food is how we interact with other humans."