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Why are Food Sensitivities on the Rise?

Why Are Food Sensitivities on the Rise?

Food allergies and sensitivities seem to be unavoidable in today’s world. The news is filled with reports of allergy deaths and airline lawsuits over peanuts, and schools across the country are tightening up their policies to accommodate the rise in students with food allergies. Everybody knows somebody trying to cut out entire food groups just to feel better, and the ingredients to avoid when sending in a birthday snack with your school-age child can be overwhelming. Just a decade ago, it was rare for a classroom to have a student with a food allergy; now 1 in 13 children are affected. The Center for Disease Control estimates that there has been a 50% increase in food allergy diagnoses in children under 18 between 1997 and 2011. What’s changed? Experts say there are a few contributing factors that are working together to increase the number of children and adults dealing with food allergies and sensitivities.

What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity?

A food allergy is much more severe and is an immune response to a specific food, which then causes a histamine reaction that can trigger anaphylaxis, hives, vomiting, and trouble breathing. Those diagnosed with food allergies carry EpiPen’s and can have reactions from even trace amounts of food. The most common foods that cause allergic reactions are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.

A food sensitivity, such as gluten or dairy, is a reaction to a certain food that causes symptoms over a few days. Those with food sensitivities can suffer from acne, eczema, bloated stomach, fatigue, migraines, and joint pain, that can be mistakenly attributed to other illnesses. It’s possible that food sensitivities are related to a higher level of certain IgG antibodies that then react to a specific food.

Why are food allergies and sensitivities increasing?

The most prevalent theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, attributes the increase in allergies to Western hygiene and cleanliness. Immune systems are developed through exposure to germs and infections at a young age. An immune system that has not been exposed to those things may instead attack a food protein, mistaking it for a germ. In our obsessive handwashing and sanitizing, it seems we have decreased germs only to increase food allergies.

Another theory is that delayed exposure to high risk foods like peanuts and shellfish has increased allergic reactions. A recent study in England found that early exposure to peanuts may prevent peanut allergies. The American Academy of Pediatrics has backed these findings and now recommends that babies begin eating peanuts at four months old, instead of the previously advised age three. There is also ongoing research on the effects of what mothers eat while pregnant and breastfeeding.

Western lifestyles appear to be attributing to the problem, as immigrants show a higher frequency of asthma and food allergy in their adopted country than the country of their birth. Children are spending more time indoors, leading to less exposure to Vitamin D, which is critical in immune system regulation. Changing environmental factors such as warmer temperatures have increased respiratory allergies, and children with respiratory allergies and asthma are more likely to have food allergies. Food habits have also shifted in recent years, and diets now include more processed food, refined fats and sugars. Scientists believe this is changing our gut bacteria and the way it functions. Increased use of antibiotics aids in killing off these helpful bacteria. These bacteria prevent allergens from gaining access to the blood, and without them, food allergies and sensitives are growing.

Researchers agree that there is no one cause of increased food sensitivities and allergies and maintain that even someone who has done everything “right” can still develop them, and genetics also play a factor. Early diagnosis is crucial and allergen immunotherapy is showing promise as researchers work to understand the ways in which our body’s responses to food have changed.