What Can I Do About Food Allergies?
Patricia Zifferblatt | December 15, 2003

Most of us can name foods that don't agree with us, and we've learned to limit or avoid those foods. For some people, certain foods such as wheat, corn, dairy, soy, shellfish, and peanuts (or foods that contain the substance) can cause problems ranging from discomfort to dangerous medical situations. In the case of severe allergies to peanuts or shellfish, allergic reactions can be fatal.

How do food allergies happen?
A food allergy develops when the body's immune system becomes misdirected, thereby causing an attack against normally harmless proteins. When this occurs, the body's immune system begins to attack the unwanted substance by producing agents such as histamines to fight it off. The histamines and other substances released by the immune system go to work, and as they do their work, inflammatory reactions may occur throughout the body. Scientists say food allergies affect children and adults of all ages and ethnicities.

What about gluten allergies?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat that helps to form the structure and consistency of bread, cakes, cookies, and other pastries. Gluten can also be found in rye, barley, and oats. When wheat flour is mixed with water and kneaded, gluten is formed.

Some people suffer from intolerance to gluten that can result in damage to the lining of the intestinal wall. When this damage occurs, the body's ability to absorb nutrients is impaired. What can follow next are abdominal cramping and pain, tiredness, nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, and fatigue. The only way to treat gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is with prescription medication from your doctor and a gluten-free diet. Anyone on a gluten-free diet can live a full life with a few changes and cautions.

Some foods that contain gluten and should be avoided:
  • Grains and grain products that are made from wheat, rye, barley, and oats, including breads, cakes, cookies, pastas, cereals, etc.
Some foods that are acceptable for a gluten-free diet are:
  • Fruits, vegetables, rice, corn, buckwheat, cornmeal, meats and other animal sources of protein, beans, peas, and nuts.
  • People allergic to gluten can also eat breads, cookies, pastries, and pastas made from either corn, rice, or soy flour (available at a health food store). Soy flour is high in protein and does not contain gluten.
Some foods that should be checked out before eating:
  • Cheese spreads, cereal yogurts, and some processed dairy products.
  • In addition, read the label before consuming packaged lunch meats, sausages, and poultry or meat products.
What does lactose intolerance mean?
Lactose is the scientific name for milk sugars; lactase is an enzyme made in the intestines that helps to break down lactose for proper digestion. People whose bodies don't produce a sufficient amount of lactase are said to be lactose intolerant. About 70% of the world's population is affected by lactose intolerance, including the elderly and many people with ancestors from Asia or Africa. In addition, many doctors take their patients suffering from psoriasis off dairy as a possible allergenic food while treating the patient for the skin eruptions.

Lactose intolerance is very different from allergic reactions to dairy that some adults and many babies and older children experience. Many babies and young children will have abdominal pain, loose bowels, and/or diarrhea when dairy is eaten. A doctor should evaluate the child if these conditions reoccur. Many children also will develop upper-respiratory congestion and mucous buildup from dairy products, including infant formula made from dairy products. The problem becomes serious when digestive problems reoccur frequently, or when the mucous buildup leads to chronic ear infections. A pediatrician should be consulted if a child is experiencing any recurring digestive problems, chronic ear infections, or any other symptoms that could possible point to an allergy to dairy or other foods.

Some foods that people with lactose intolerance should avoid are:
  • All dairy foods such as milk, ice cream, and cheeses, and foods that contain high amounts of dairy. As a rule, if the milk comes from a mammal, it contains lactose.
Some foods that are acceptable on a lactose-free diet are:
  • Soy and rice beverage drinks, often called soy milk or rice milk; these can be found in the dairy section of the grocery or health food store and are a good substitute for dairy products.
  • There are also frozen desserts and treats for kids of all ages made from soy or rice milk.
  • The health food store will probably have soy cheeses, non-dairy creamers, and other foods.
  • Alternatively, people who are lactose intolerant can take enzyme tablets before eating dairy products to enjoy them without the nasty aftereffects; health food stores and drugstores usually carry the tablets.
What about soy intolerance or soy restriction?
Soybeans are one of the world's oldest and most valuable foods and are native to Southeast Asia. Many foods come from the soybean, including soy flour, soy protein powder, textured vegetable soy used in meatless foods, tofu, soybean oil, and soy drinks. Soy is an excellent source of protein without saturated fat and cholesterol, and it's become a cornerstone of a vegetarian diet. Recently, soy has been shown to be protective against heart disease and some forms of cancer.

But even with soy's benefits, some people can't eat soy products due to allergic reactions. In addition, some women have been told by their oncologists not to eat soy foods after having breast cancer because soy contains phytoestrogens that may play a role in a reoccurrence of the cancer.

Some foods you can eat if you've been told to avoid soy:
  • Fruits, vegetables, grains, foods made with flour other than soy flour, and low-fat dairy products not made from soy.
Some foods to avoid:
  • Soybeans, all meatless food products, foods that contain soy flour or soy protein powder, soy beverages, and soy frozen desserts.
What's with all the concern over peanuts?
Peanuts, also known at goober peas, are a member of the legume family rather than the nut family--biologically they're more similar to peas than to pecans. Peanuts are a high-energy protein food; they contain not only protein, but also about 50% monounsaturated fat, the fats considered good fats. But peanuts are high in calories and should not be overeaten.

And unfortunately peanuts are one of the foods to which some people are severely allergic. Most of us can't imagine childhood without peanut butter, but it's a fact of life for many children. Schools now have peanut-free zones for those children who suffer serious allergic reactions to peanuts or foods made with peanuts. Many airlines now hand out pretzels instead of peanuts as snacks.

People allergic to peanuts must avoid all foods that contain peanuts in any form. Peanut products, such as peanut oil, may turn up in the strangest places, so vigilance is a necessity. Read labels on packaged foods, and ask questions about the food before you bite into it or allow your child to eat it.

And food allergies can kill?
Yes, anaphylactic shock, a very serious consequence of allergic reactions, is potentially deadly. Anyone with this serious health issue should work closely with his or her doctor and carry the necessary medications at all times in case a reaction occurs. Doctors estimate that every year over 30,000 people receive life-saving treatment in emergency rooms for anaphylaxis.

There's an abundance of foods for just about any type of diet if you look for them. Whatever your food sensitivities, we at Better Life Unlimited suggest three steps to determine whether a food is acceptable:
  • Read the label on the food.
  • Ask questions about the ingredients in the foods or recipes.
  • And when in doubt--don't!
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