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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
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.
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 breast-feeding 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.
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.
It’s OK to
eat highly allergenic foods unless you are allergic to them. There is no proof
that staying away from them lowers allergy risks in babies. In fact, cutting
them from your diet may cause more harm than good, as most allergenic foods provide crucial nutrients for you and your baby. For example, omega-3 fatty
acids in fish and shellfish promote fetal brain development, and the folate in
peanuts helps prevent neural-tube defects, such as spina bifida.
avoiding allergenic foods while breast-feeding has not been shown to provide any benefit to your baby. However, researchers do
believe that breast-feeding itself may help ward off food allergies. “Exclusive
breast-feeding—no formula—for four months or longer is the best thing,” says
Frank R. Greer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin
and co-author of an American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report on food
allergies. If your breast-fed baby reacts to something you eat, avoid it. As for
the opposite tactic—going out of your way to eat allergenic foods during
pregnancy or breast-feeding—there’s no evidence that doing so offers any
protection against allergies either, Greer says.
the American Academy of Pediatrics, offering your baby allergenic foods is OK
starting at four to six months; just be sure to watch for any allergic reaction (symptoms
include hives, itchy eyes or mouth, vomiting, pale skin, fainting, difficulty
breathing and swelling of the eyes, tongue or lips). Not only does withholding
these foods offer no protection, but a 2008 study found a tenfold greater chance
of peanut allergies in children who did not eat foods containing peanuts during
infancy and early childhood compared with those who did. “Introducing
allergenic foods to your infant after four months while he’s still being
breast-fed may also protect against the development of food allergy,” Greer
A baby is
more likely to develop allergies of any kind (including food allergies, hay
fever, asthma or eczema) if either parent has them, says Ananth Thyagarajan,
M.D., attending physician at the Virginia Adult and Pediatric Allergy and
Asthma Practice in Richmond. But if this is the case, there’s no evidence that
avoiding allergenic foods (other than those you’re allergic to yourself) while
you’re pregnant or nursing will help your baby.
baby nothing but breast milk for his first four to six months, then continuing
to breast-feed after you introduce solids, appears to be the only way to improve
your baby’s odds of dodging food allergies if they run in the family. “If you
must wean your baby off the breast before four months, a partially hydrolyzed
formula is likely beneficial compared to a standard cow’s milk formula,” says
pediatric allergy expert Frank R. Greer, M.D. Find out what your pediatrician