Fifty years ago, food allergies were rare—almost unheard of. But that’s certainly not the case today.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of children with food allergies went up 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. In 2007, 3 million kids younger than age 18 had a food or digestive allergy.
Sadly, things have not gotten any better in the last decade. According to an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal (“A Striking Rise in Serious Allergy Cases”), insurance claim data finds that the rate of severe allergic reactions to foods like peanuts has increased nearly five times over the past decade.
What’s the reason for this unprecedented rise in food allergies? No one knows for sure, but there are several plausible theories.
Food Allergy Factor #1 – The Western (High Sugar, Low Fiber) Diet
One theory is that the modern Western diet is to blame. Not only is it high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and carbohydrates, much of our conventionally grown produce is genetically modified and/or laden with pesticides and herbicides, and farm animals are pumped full of drugs and antibiotics. All of this can have a serious impact on our “microbiome”—the mini ecosystem in our gut that is the basis of good health and immunity over our lifetime.
In one study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers compared the gut bacteria of 15 children in an urban area in Italy with 14 children in rural Africa. The diversity of bacteria in these two groups was dramatically different.
Why the difference? It’s all about diet.
The diet of the rural African children was low in fat and rich in plant-based foods—all of which were grown and harvested locally by villagers. These children ate high amounts of ancient grains (such as millet and sorghum), legumes, and vegetables, so they got plenty of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and non-animal protein. Chicken and even termites comprised their occasional meat intake. This group had a “richer,” more favorable microbiome of bacterial strains in their guts – not surprising, since “good” gut bacteria thrives on fiber.
In start contrast, the Italian kids’ diets were high in animal protein, sugar, and starch and low in fiber—the type of diet typically seen in modernized countries. They had a less rich, and ultimately less favorable, microbiome profile than the kids in rural Africa. No big surprise here, since “bad” bacteria loves to eat sugar!
And one of the consequences of this reduction in “good” bacteria and overall microbial richness? Food allergies.
Food Allergy Factor #2: Hygiene Hypothesis
Another potential factor in the rise of food allergies is what’s called the “hygiene hypothesis.” Our nation’s obsession with cleanliness is starting to take a negative toll. Sure, staying germ-free can prevent the spread of infection, but the downside is that it could be making the younger generation more susceptible to all sorts of allergies.
The hygiene hypothesis, coined by epidemiologist David Strachan in the 1980s, states that exposure to things we consider dirty or harmful—allergens, bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc.—early in life can strengthen the immune system and protect against allergies later in life. Regular exposure to these pathogens challenges the immune system a little bit each time. Over months and years, we develop a tolerance to those microorganisms and our bodies stop responding to them as dramatically.
Western medicine’s advances in sanitation and disease control may have decreased rates of infectious illnesses, but also reduced our exposure to diverse forms of bacteria, making us more susceptible to overblown immune reactions to otherwise harmless agents. Add to that the fact that many of us live in hyper-clean environments, so our youngsters’ bodies never get a chance to build up any immune tolerance. As a result, there’s a higher chance their immune systems will have overblown reactions to substances that should otherwise be harmless, like pollen, certain foods, and so on.
In a nutshell, the things we do in an effort to live clean, disease-free lifestyles may actually be backfiring. We should be letting our kids play in the dirt, rather than dousing them in hand sanitizer. We shouldn’t completely freak out if they lick the shopping cart. Remember: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” This same rule applies to children much of the time.
Consider this: Rural African kids are rarely vaccinated, often live in unsanitary conditions, and are exposed to many infectious diseases. But they also don’t have nearly the incidence of allergies (food or environmental), digestive disorders, autoimmune conditions, and other health problems that plague Western societies. It’s very likely their diet, along with their regular exposure to various pathogens, has created an incredibly diverse gut microbiome, protecting them from these problems.
Food Allergy Factor #3 – Early Exposure
A final theory that may explain the rise of food allergies is that children aren’t exposed to certain foods at an early enough age. Many doctors recommend waiting until age 2 or 3 to introduce kids to some of the most common allergens: peanuts, cow dairy, tree nuts, eggs, wheat, and shellfish. But this thinking is challenged nowadays. According to a 2014 study, “There is a growing body of evidence that early introduction of foods such as peanuts, fish, and eggs (at an appropriate age) might actually be beneficial in preventing food allergy, and that delaying food introduction might contribute to allergic disease.”
How to Prevent Food Allergies
While a lot of this discussion has been about food allergies in children, guess what: Adults can develop food allergies at any time in their lives! By some estimates, more than 50 percent of American adults with food allergies got them when they were older than 18.
So whether you’re a pregnant soon-to-be mother, a parent of young children, or a grown adult, these recommendations on how to prevent food allergies pertain to you…
- Follow a mostly organic, anti-inflammatory diet, and the one I recommend most highly is the Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean Diet (PAMM). It is a blend of the best of traditional Asian and Mediterranean dietary approaches, high in gut-friendly, fiber-rich foods, probiotic-rich fermented foods, and anti-inflammatory fish and olive oils. Noticeably absent: unhealthy fats, sugar, GMOs, and processed foods. The PAMM diet gives your gut a diverse range of nutrients to support a healthy, robust microbiome.
- Don’t be afraid of dirt. I’m not telling you to forgo washing your hands at the appropriate times—such as after using the bathroom or before eating a meal. But our modern practice of squirting antibacterial gel on our hands every time we touch a doorknob or shake a hand must stop. Remember—exposure to germs usually does not lead to illness. But it does challenge the immune system, making it stronger.
- If you’re pregnant, consider eating allergenic foods. Research has shown that eating peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, and other common allergenic foods during pregnancy reduces the risk that your baby will be born with allergies to these foods.
- Finally, you have young ones, talk to your pediatrician about early exposure to foods. Work with your child’s doctor to introduce foods such as peanut butter, eggs, and dairy at an appropriate time—but definitely far earlier than age 2 or 3.
- CDC. Food Allergy Among U.S. Children: Trends in Prevalence and Hospitalizations. Accessed Oct. 13, 2017.
- Reddy S. “A Striking Rise of Serious Allergy Cases,” Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2017.
- De Filippo C, et al. Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe and rural Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2010 Aug 17;107(33):14691-6.
- Chin B, et al. Early exposure to food and food allergy in children. Can Fam Physician. 2014 Apr;60(4):338-9.
- Maslova E, et al. Peanut and tree nut consumption during pregnancy and allergic disease in children—should mothers decrease their intake? Longitudinal evidence from the Danish National Birth Cohort. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2012;130(3):724-32.
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