Intro to High-Allergen Foods: Separating Help From Hype in Your Child’s Diet

It’s hard to go a month without spying something in the news about food allergies. Headlines declare that they are on the rise one week and that they don’t actually exist the next. While increased awareness is a good thing, it’s hard to separate the good information from the bad.

This confusion seems to have elevated the fear of high-allergen foods like peanuts and strawberries among parents—especially when it comes to feeding babies—despite a declaration by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that there is no proven benefit to delaying solids, even high allergen foods, beyond ages 4-6 months.

Keeping our children safe is, of course, of paramount importance. But with rising rates of child obesity, childhood onset of type-2 diabetes, and other food-related childhood health problems, it’s also important to ensure that our young eaters are getting optimal nutrition and are being fed in a way that helps set healthy eating habits for life. In other words, it’s important to take the fear out of feeding so that we, as parents, can have a healthy perspective on a full range of good-for-you foods.

Part of developing that healthy perspective is learning about high allergen foods, how to safely introduce them and what to do if your child has an allergic reaction.

What are high-allergen foods?

When our body comes in contact with something it mistakes for a dangerous invader, the immune system releases antibodies that trigger the release of histamines. This is the process of an allergic reaction. A true food allergy involves this immune reaction.

Non-allergic food-related reactions or intolerances, on the other hand, do not engage the immune system, but can cause skin or gastrointestinal reactions. It can be hard to tell the difference between an allergy and intolerance since both may include a skin rash. In fact, it can be so hard that it’s estimated 50% to 90% of food allergies are not true food allergies at all, but rather food sensitivities.

If it’s so hard to tell the difference, why does distinguishing between the two matter? The issue lay in the mode of food allergy/sensitivity treatment. To lower the risk of food-related reactions, whether allergies or sensitivities, healthcare providers may recommend eliminating foods from the diet. In many cases, elimination (withholding often nutrient-dense foods from a child’s diet) is extreme, especially as children may outgrow their “bad” reactions. The National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has set out to differentiate true food allergies from food sensitivities. Their hope is to move health care providers away from thinking about food elimination as an end treatment.

Though it’s important not to panic over food reactions, it is also important to be familiar with your child’s reactions to foods. That begins with an awareness of the foods that are most likely to cause a reaction or allergy. The following 8 high-allergen foods are responsible for about 90% of food allergies:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Peanuts
  4. Tree nuts
  5. Fish
  6. Shellfish
  7. Soy
  8. Wheat

Some early eaters may also react to highly acidic foods like tomatoes or citrus fruit. This is usually nothing more than an irritation of the GI system—an allergy is rarely at play.

How and when to safely introduce high-allergen foods

In 2008, the AAP released a clinical report indicating that there is no proven benefit in delaying solids, even high allergen foods, beyond 4 to 6 months. That means that you can share any and all healthy, whole foods with your baby, especially if your child has no personal or family history of food allergies. Yes. ANY. Strawberries, eggs, even peanuts.

This does not mean that your child won’t necessarily have an allergic reaction. He or she may. But the point is that starting early won’t create an allergy. In fact, some medical professionals believe that there is an advantage to knowing sooner rather than later, and that there are possible preventative benefits to feeding high allergen foods early.

All of this information exists to say is that it’s fair game to consider feeding high allergen foods as early as 6 months. That doesn’t mean you have to, but it’s a worthwhile option. By starting your baby on a wide variety of foods, including high-allergen ones, you expose your baby to a greater variety of foods at a critical time of taste bud development.

If you choose to introduce high allergen foods early, be sure that you’re prepared. Isolate the food as the only new food introduction for a few days so that you can reliably track your child’s reaction, and have a plan for what to do if your child reacts badly.

What to do if your child has an allergic reaction

Speak to your pediatrician before introducing high allergen foods, especially if you decide to introduce them early on in your child’s eating adventure. She can help you decide what’s best for your child’s specific health needs and also give you instructions on what to do if your child has a reaction. Keep in mind that a reaction doesn’t necessarily mean that your child has a full-blown allergy. On the other hand, if they have a severe reaction, immediately call 911 and take your child to the emergency room.

And remember: the bottom line is that YOU feel comfortable. Because, above all, feeding should be healthy, fun and stress-free so that baby can learn to love mealtime!

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