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When food is the enemy

food allergiesTo hear most people tell it, food allergies have reached epidemic proportions. In fact, true food allergies affect about 2 percent of American adults and 8 percent of children, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Still, that’s nothing to sneeze at: Depending on a person’s degree of sensitivity, food allergies can be quite serious—in some cases, even life threatening.

Common culprits

Common allergy-causing foods include milk, peanuts, eggs (especially egg whites), wheat, soy, tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, cashews and pecans), fish and shellfish. These eight foods cause 90 percent of all allergic reactions. Other culprits are legumes, citrus fruits and berries.

The reactions start when the body doesn’t recognize a food as a nutritious substance. Instead, the food is seen as a foreign object. This prompts certain cells in the immune system to release histamine, which in turn triggers symptoms such as:

  • sneezing, runny nose or nasal congestion 
  • swelling and tenderness of the mouth
  • difficulty breathing
  • flushing of skin or rash
  • hives
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhea

Reactions may occur immediately after eating or up to 72 hours later. Because some allergic reactions may become more severe with each subsequent attack, you should talk to your healthcare provider as soon as a food allergy is suspected.

Keeping track

Because some food allergies don’t cause an immediate reaction, it is sometimes difficult to find the trigger. A food diary can make this easier. By writing down everything you eat for a few weeks and keeping track of symptoms, you and your healthcare provider will be better able to pinpoint the problem foods.

Testing

To find out if you have an allergy, your healthcare provider may perform one of two tests. In a skin prick test, a doctor places a drop of the substance being tested on your forearm or back and pricks the skin with a needle, allowing a tiny bit to enter the skin. If you are allergic, a small bump will form within 15 minutes.  The other method is a blood test called RAST, or the radioallergosorbent test.

Stress-free dining

For people with allergies, eating out can be frustrating. Just a trace of the offending item in your meal can cause a full-blown reaction. For those allergic to peanuts, even 1/500th of a teaspoon of peanut butter can create a problem. These hints can make dining out an enjoyable experience:

  • Call the restaurant before you arrive and have a chef handle your concerns. If that’s not possible, eat a small meal at home before you go out—that way, a side dish or an appetizer will satisfy you in the absence of a safe entree.
  • If your meal arrives with the allergy-causing substance on the plate, don’t try to remove the ingredient—traces are likely to remain even if you can’t see them. Reorder the dish without the ingredient or order something else.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages. Alcohol speeds the absorption of food from the intestine and can prompt a reaction in cases where a small amount of the offending food is normally well tolerated.