12 March 2018

Can paranoia contribute to food allergies?

New research suggests that pregnant women may involuntarily cause food allergies in their babies by steering clear of certain foods 'just in case'.

If you think that avoiding certain foods during pregnancy may improve your baby's chances of not developing a food allergy, you might be wrong.

According to a report in The Australian, recent research suggests that the food allergy epidemic in the Western society might be caused by extreme caution. The study, published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine in November 2017, states that exposure to the usual culprits such as eggs and peanuts will help create antibodies in the unborn baby to counteract allergies.

“You should be eating every food to create antibodies to everything,” said research leader Mich­iko Oyoshi of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. 

“There are suggestions across the field of allergy research that allergen introduction is important to help induce and maintain tolerance,” says Professor Katie Allen, an allergy research associate.

Why the paranoia?

Global statistics suggest 4% of children have one or more food allergy. While we have no recent data, previous studies suggested that studies conducted in Bloemfontein in the 1980s, Gauteng in the 1990s, Pretoria in 2005 and Cape Town in 2008, showed that while many individuals of varying ages (two months to 24 years) reacted positively to skin prick testing (SPT) for wheat, milk, fish, peanut, soy and egg, only one patient out of a total of 645 subjects had actual symptoms of a true food allergy.

Dietitians suggest that factors such as urbanisation and a change in lifestyle may have contributed to the surge in food allergies in South African children.

Given the rise in food allergies, it’s no surprise that we would want to avoid certain foods during pregnancy to ensure that our unborn babies are as healthy as possible.

According to Professor Allen it is understandable that many pregnant women believe it’s better to be safe than sorry and add potentially allergenic foods to the already lengthy list of substances to avoid.

What the current guidelines say

According to the Nutrition Information Centre at the University of Stellenbosch (NICUS), it’s important for the pregnant woman to eat a variety of fruit, vegetables, unrefined starches and protein.

Eggs, peanut butter, legumes and dairy products are great sources of nutrients such as iron and calcium and there is not enough research to substantiate that these foods will potentially lead to food allergies in the unborn baby.

Dr Adrian Morris, Health24’s allergy expert, says, “Currently the medical opinion is that one should not avoid allergenic foods in the pregnant mother's (or the infant's) diet. Small amounts of allergen in the mother’s diet and breastmilk tend to switch off allergic sensitisation and reduce allergies in babies."

On the question whether pregnant women should avoid any specific foods to prevent allergies, Dr Morris answers, "Spurious advice to avoid common allergenic foods in the pregnant woman's diet and in early childhood is possibly the cause for the food allergy epidemic we see in children nowadays.”

Tips on preventing food allergies

According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, there are some tips you can follow to prevent food allergies in your baby.

  • Don’t introduce solid foods before 17 weeks, as babies in the study who were fed solid foods were more likely to develop food allergies.
  • Continue breastfeeding, as breastmilk contains important antibodies that regulate the immune system.
  • Limit packaged foods and incorporate fresh fruit and vegetables. According to this study, processed foods can trigger food allergies in babies.
  • NICUS recommends that pregnant women eat a balanced diet including sources of proteins and fats.
  • According to a study mentioned in a previous Health24 article, it was found that exposure to certain allergens (such as peanuts and eggs) at a young age might actually help prevent the development of food allergies. 

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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