Food Allergies 102: Can Happen at Any Age

Previously, I wrote about food allergies in babies with a focus on introducing solid foods (Spring 2017 edition). While food allergy is often on the minds of parents when starting their babies on solid foods, food allergies and food sensitivities/intolerances can happen at any age. Also, some kids will live for years without the connection being made between a food and symptoms that they are experiencing.

Food Allergy Definition
A food allergy is when the immune system mistakes a particular food as harmful. Once a person has developed a food allergy, an allergic reaction occurs every time the food is eaten. Food allergies can be severe (often called anaphylactic) or children can have more mild reactions. Currently it’s estimated that 7% of kids in BC have food allergies.

Food Intolerance/ Sensitivity Definition
The terms ‘food intolerance’ and ‘food sensitivity’ are often used interchangeably. Food intolerances/ sensitivities often involve the gastro-intestinal tract such as gas, bloating and diarrhea or constipation. Celiac disease and lactose intolerance are two examples of food intolerances. The medical and science communities are also learning that people can experience symptoms beyond the gut including skin reactions and brain function. One example is the behavioural reaction that some children experience when they eat some food colourings.

A Note on Lactose

Sometimes people mislabel lactose intolerance as a “dairy allergy”. It is not an allergy. The definition of lactose intolerance is when someone has an insufficient amount of the enzyme (called lactase) in their body to digest the lactose in milk. This causes gastro-intestinal symptoms such as bloating and gas. Many people develop lactose intolerance as they grow up. It’s particularly common amongst people from backgrounds where their culture didn’t traditionally domesticate cows – such as Asian, African-American and Indigenous people. Also, someone can develop temporary lactose intolerance after taking antibiotics.

How Do You Know If Your Child Has Had A Food Reaction?

Severe food allergy reactions usually appear within minutes of eating a food. Signs include:

  • Mouth, tongue and throat swelling.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing or hoarse voice.
  • Pale or blue colour of the face or lips.
  • Faintness, weakness or passing out.

This is an important point from Food Allergy Canada: “A child may describe their symptoms differently than an adult: for example “my throat is tingly” or “my tongue feels scratchy”.”

If you suspect that your child is having a severe allergy reaction, immediately get emergency medical help. Call 9-1-1 or the emergency number in your area.

If you suspect that your child has a non-severe food reaction, stop feeding your child that food. Talk with your primary care provider (doctor or Nurse Practitioner) or a dietitian with experience in food allergy. Kids grow out of reactions to some foods more commonly than others. Your health professional and you will create an individual plan for when to try re-introducing that particular food.

Food Elimination Diets
The gold-standard way to determine a food reaction is to do a food elimination diet followed by a food challenge. It is important to do an elimination diet correctly to give you clear answers. Also, when foods are removed without looking at the rest of a child’s diet, the child can be missing important nutrients for their growth and health. If you’re wondering about whether your child has a food sensitivity and/or are considering eliminating foods, I highly recommend working with a dietitian who has experience in food allergies/sensitivities.

Learning More Every Day
There is much that the medical and science communities do not know about food allergies and food intolerances/sensitivities. Almost daily, research studies are published which both provide new information and create new questions. It can be frustrating for both parents and health professionals to not have clear answers. I am looking forward to the future when I can give you more clear direction about how to prevent, identify, and manage food allergy and food intolerance/sensivity.

Food Allergy Resources
Two fantastic resources on food allergy and sensitivity:

Food Allergy Canada:

Dietitian Services at HealthLink BC: HealthLink BC’s registered dietitians offer telephone, email and web-based based food and nutrition services for B.C. residents – for free. They have an allergy dietitian on staff. Call 8-1-1 and ask for the allergy nutrition service.

Kristen, MSc, RD is a child-feeding expert who helps parents support their picky eaters to try new foods on their own. Since 2008, she has been working with families to provide good nutrition for their kids today and instill a love of food that lasts a lifetime.

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