Can your diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding protect your baby from food allergies?
You'd probably do just about anything when you’re pregnant to keep your baby from developing food allergies. Avoid shrimp? Check. Stay away from eggs? No problem. Skip soy? Consider it done. Unfortunately, the advice on how to prevent food allergies keeps changing. So where does that leave you if someone offers you a peanut butter cookie?
It’s an important question. For the 6 percent of babies and toddlers with true food allergies, eating certain foods triggers an immune system overreaction that can cause anything from chronic itching and eczema to sudden difficulty breathing and even life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
The problem is growing—the incidence of food allergies in children increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. Scientists aren’t sure why, but theories include greater awareness among parents and doctors, lower immunity because of less exposure to bacteria and lack of exposure to common allergens early in life. However, keep in mind that a true allergy is different from a more common food intolerance (also known as sensitivity) in that the latter typically triggers less serious problems, such as gas, bloating or diarrhea.
In the past, conventional wisdom held that avoiding highly allergenic foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding and withholding them from a child during his early years could reduce his risk for food allergies. (These foods are wheat, soy, cow’s milk, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and eggs.) But recent evidence has turned that advice upside down. Now it seems there may be no reason to say no to allergenic foods, particularly wheat, eggs and fish; in fact, avoiding them may actually increase your baby’s risk of developing food allergies.
Confused? That’s not surprising. So are immunology researchers. Studies delving into these questions are in the works, but you’re pregnant now— what should you do? Here are the current recommendations based on the latest research.