Don’t self diagnose food allergies

When you go to the grocery store is your cart full of “free” foods, such as soy-free, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, nut-free, peanut-free, etc.?

With so many of these products being heavily marketed, and poor health information being widely spread on the internet through Facebook, blogs and other social networking sites, it’s easy to make assumptions about food allergies for your and/or your children.

Common symptoms that everyone gets occasionally—nausea, diarrhea, acne, fatigue, weight gain, rashes, and sinusitis—are frequently misdiagnosed as food allergies or intolerances.

I have had many friends over the years who have told me they or one of their children have food allergies (gluten intolerance is popular right now), but when I ask how it was diagnosed, they tell me, “Oh, I/he/she just has all the symptoms.” or “So-and-so had the same symptoms and s/he has this allergy.”

Avoiding certain foods seems harmless enough, but it can have consequences.

As the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website states:

Do not diagnose a food allergy on your own. Self-diagnosis can lead to unnecessary dietary restrictions and inadequate nutrition, especially in children. Additionally, some people think they are allergic to a food when they actually have another type of food disorder, and treatment may differ.

Infants, especially, are at risk of malnutrition if too many foods are eliminated from their diets.

Another problem is emotional rather than physical.

Pediatric allergist John Lee, director of the Food Allergy Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, has heard more than his share of horror stories. “Food allergies can be terribly isolating for a kid,” he says. “One parent told me his child was forced to sit all alone on a stage during lunch period. And siblings can feel resentful because in many cases parents don’t feel they can take family vacations or even eat dinner in a restaurant.”

If you suspect a food allergy, make an appointment with your primary care provide or an allergist. The first step it to talk with them about the symptoms and how those relate to your diet. A physician will probably suggest keeping a food diary for a period of time.

Skin prick tests are commonly used, but not very accurate. If the test is negative (no skin reaction), there is no allergy. But a positive test (red, irritated skin) is still just a maybe until further testing, a more specific blood test, can be done.

Some people really do have food allergies, and some of these allergies can be deadly.

But allergy experts believe our over reaction to food allergies in the last 20 years has actually contributed to the epidemic of kids with serious allergies. Protective parents heeded the advice of pediatricians to avoid certain foods, such as peanut butter, in their kids’ diets.

The current thinking, however, is to expose young children to a much wider variety of foods (and dirt).

Scott H. Sicherer, a professor of pediatrics, allergy and immunology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, takes the early desensitization idea a step further. He suggests children can best avoid food allergies if they eat a wide variety of foods at an early age, run in the open air and “play in the dirt.” A little less protection from the world, he says, may be the best protection from allergies.

Related post: Kids and allergies


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