Food allergies are becoming an increasing problem. According to a 2008 study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies increased about 18% in the decade between 1997 and 2007, and peanut allergies in children actually tripled between 1997 and 2008. An estimated 4% of adults and 8% of children suffer from a food allergy. Only eight foods are responsible for 90% of allergic reactions to food: peanuts, milk, eggs, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pistachios, almonds and cashews), fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. Allergic reactions range from mild (rash, itching, swelling) to deadly (the throat swells due to anaphylactic shock, preventing the passage of air). As there is currently no cure for food allergies, the best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the offending food. If you have been experiencing symptoms of allergy after meals, it may be of benefit for you to try a hypoallergenic diet.
What following a hypoallergenic diet can do for you
Those who frequently suffer from problems such as irritable bowel, chronic fatigue syndrome and heartburn may find that it is their diet that is contributing to the problem. Doctors sometimes recommend following a hypoallergenic diet for a while to see if their condition improves. Often, common gastrointestinal conditions can be resolved by pinpointing the food that a person is allergic to. Other conditions related to food sensitivities include asthma, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, premenstrual syndrome, recurring ear infections, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic muscle pain, low energy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Hypoallergenic diet basics
A hypoallergenic diet starts with eating only foods that are known to not cause allergic reactions in most of the population, for a set length of time (usually about three to six weeks, depending on the extent of your gastrointestinal symptoms). This is referred to as the food elimination phase of the diet. During this phase you are allowed to eat as many of the foods on the approved food list as you like, as the gastrointestinal symptoms are allowed to subside and the allergens are cleared from the system. The approved foods include most fresh vegetables (apart from tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, corn and potatoes), fruit (except strawberries) and legumes, apart from soy.
Once symptoms have been reduced, the next phase of the diet begins, called the food challenge phase. One by one, foods not on the approved list are reintroduced into the diet, with careful attention being paid to any resulting reactions. At least two portions a day of each reintroduced item should be eaten, for two consecutive days, with symptoms to be monitored for a total of three days (the two days you eat the new food, and one follow-up day). If symptoms appear, stop eating the food and wait for symptoms to clear before reintroducing the next item on the list.
You should keep in mind that The American Academy of Family Physicians advises that if you have had any allergy tests that indicate a severe reaction to any type of food that you avoid that food entirely so as to avoid the risk of anaphylactic shock. The hypoallergenic diet is intended only to pinpoint sources of allergens that you may have not already discovered.
Tips on how to avoid allergenic foods
Your best bet to avoid an allergic reaction to a food is to cook it yourself from scratch. Many processed foods contain a variety of common allergens, including nuts, dairy and fish, even those you would not suspect. For example, many people are unaware that Worcestershire sauce has anchovies in it. Also, some foods are not necessarily allergens in themselves, but they may be exposed to cross-contamination from proximity to allergenic foods, such as peanuts being processed in the same factory as tree nuts. Always be sure to read the label on any processed food product you buy to check for possible allergens. Following are a few useful tips so you can avoid inadvertently consuming a food you are allergic to:
Nuts – Some products likely to contain nuts are chocolates, candy bars, sauces (including hot sauce, gravy and salad dressing), desserts (ice cream, pudding, hot chocolate, cookies, cake), egg rolls, glazes/marinades, vegetarian products (particularly meat substitutes), Asian and Mexican dishes.
Dairy – In addition to cheese, butter, sour cream, ice cream and yogurt, less obvious sources of dairy are in products that contain casein. Even products labeled as being "non-dairy" may contain casein. Avoid any product that lists any of the following as an ingredient: casein, caseinate, potassium caseinate, calcium caseinate, magnesium caseinate, ammonia caseinate, and sodium caseinate.
Eggs – Most baked goods, including desserts and breads, contain eggs. They are also commonly found in pasta, mayonnaise and egg substitutes. Avoid products containing any of the following ingredients: egg white, egg yolk, dried egg, albumin, egg powder, egg solids, ovalbumin, ovomucoid, ovomucin, ovovitellin, and livetin.
Wheat – In addition to the obvious wheat-containing products, bread and pasta, many food additives are also made from wheat, such as dextrin, caramel coloring and extracts. Other wheat-based products to avoid are bulgur, durum and graham flours, semolina, seitan, triticale, couscous, tabbouleh, and anything containing gluten.