If you have a food allergy, your body’s immune system overreacts to certain food components known as food allergens. These allergens, which are usually proteins, are harmless to most people. But if your body’s immune system has been sensitized to the allergens, it may overreact and attack the proteins as if they were harmful bacteria.
The most common food allergens come from the following foods:
- Tree nuts
- Cow’s milk
Although nearly any food can trigger an allergic reaction, these eight foods cause the majority of reactions. Food allergy is a serious and potentially life-threatening medical condition affecting 32 million Americans. One in every 13 children has a food allergy—that’s about 2 in every U.S. classroom. And every 3 minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.
What Causes a Food Allergy?
The job of the body’s immune system is to identify and destroy germs (such as bacteria or viruses) that make you sick. A food allergy happens when your immune system overreacts to a harmless food protein—an allergen.
Family history appears to play a role in whether someone develops a food allergy. If you have other kinds of allergic reactions, like eczema or hay fever, you have a greater risk of food allergy. This is also true of asthma.
Food allergies are not the same as food intolerances, and food allergy symptoms overlap with symptoms of other medical conditions. It is therefore important to have your food allergy confirmed by an appropriate evaluation with an allergist.
Food allergy may occur in response to any food, and some people are allergic to more than one food. Food allergies may start in childhood or as an adult.
All food allergies have one thing in common: They are potentially life-threatening. Always take food allergies—and the people who live with them—seriously.
Food allergy reactions can vary unpredictably from mild to severe. Mild food allergy reactions may involve only a few hives or minor abdominal pain, though some food allergy reactions progress to severe anaphylaxis with low blood pressure and loss of consciousness. Currently, there is no cure for food allergies.
Researchers are investigating exciting new ways to stop food allergy reactions or limit reaction symptoms. Most of the therapies now being studied are allergen-specific, treating individual food allergies with products made from the individual problem food(s).
What You Need to Know
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires that food products containing the eight major allergens have plain-language labels (“contains milk”) to help consumers avoid these allergens.
However, this labeling requirement does not include restaurant foods, so you will need to ask your server the necessary questions before ordering.
Take control to change your life forever
While allergy testing can be illuminating, the “gold standard” in figuring out if foods are causing your problems (which can lead to everything from autoimmune arthritis, to an irritable bowel, to acne), is by cutting out the culprit foods for about a month and see how you feel when you reintroduce them.
This can be done by doing an elimination diet at least once. The basic elimination diet is as simple as this: No gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fast food, or alcohol for 23 days. Why 23 Days? Antibodies, which are the proteins that your immune system makes when it reacts to foods, take around 21 to 23 days to turn over. So, if you don’t quit those foods you’re sensitive to for at least that time frame, you won’t experience the true effects of elimination. On day 24, you can choose to eat one thing you eliminated—like gluten, or dairy, or eggs—but not more than one. See how you feel over the next 48 hours. If you have no reaction after two days, eat that same food again for a second time, and notice how you feel. From there, it’s up to you whether or not to re-incorporate that food into your diet on a regular basis. Once you’ve made a call on the first food you reintroduce, pick another one and follow the same steps.
Throughout the diet and the reintroduction process, notice how you feel. Maybe you’ll see changes you weren’t expecting. Maybe your sleep quality or your energy level is better. Maybe the redness in your skin is gone, or your belly is flatter.
No blood test can tell you what life without a particular food will be like—the key here is experimenting. When you find out for yourself, you could be saving yourself a lifetime of inflammation, annoying symptoms, and in some cases, chronic diseases.