The Truth Behind 8 Common Food Allergy Myths
By Sloane Miller, MSW, LMSW
I was born with food allergies and developed asthma, environmental allergies, and eczema in childhood. Currently, I successfully manage all in my everyday life, which includes dating, dining out, traveling, working and most importantly living. My motto is: Just because you have a restricted diet, does not mean you have a restricted life, and this is the message I try to get across to the families, children and adults I work with as a food allergy counselor.
There are many myths surrounding food allergies. Below are 8 common ones that I hear in my food allergy counseling practice every day. For Food Allergy Awareness Week this week, see how many of them you’ve heard before and then read up on the truth. Be sure to contact your board certified medical health provider to go over your personal health needs and questions.
MYTH #1: I get headaches after I eat. It MUST be a food allergy.
Headaches are not a symptom of food allergies. A food allergy is an immune response to a particular food. Protein in that food triggers the body’s immune system to react, causing allergic symptoms.
According to the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the US: “Symptoms may include itchy mouth, tongue and lips; hives; respiratory distress or gastro-intestinal distress. The most severe reaction is anaphylaxis - a rapid and potentially fatal onset of symptoms involving multiple bodily systems such as the skin, GI tract, cardiovascular, respiratory systems.”
MYTH #2: So if I have headaches after I eat, and it’s not food allergies, what is it? It must be normal.
In brief: no. I talk about this all the time with my food allergy clients. Several things could be happening: a food intolerance, a food sensitivity, even food poisoning. These terms are often used interchangeably; however they are not the same things. Bottom line: If you have any adverse reactions after eating, see a board certified medical health professional for a consultation.
Before you go for your consultation, keep a food diary of what you are eating and what symptoms appear when; what medications you took if any and what effect they had; keep food labels of any processed foods you’ve been eating or any new health changes.
Become your best advocate for your health by bringing together all of the information and going through it with your doctor to uncover the root cause of your adverse reactions.
MYTH #3: Food allergies are not all that common, I have nothing to worry
The latest numbers from the journal Pediatrics state that nearly 6 million or 8% of children in the United States have at least one food allergy. That is 1 in every 13 American children. According to the Food Allergy Research & Education, an estimated 9 million, or 4%, of adults in the United States have food allergies. That’s 15 million Americans total. Food allergies diagnoses are on the rise and anyone can become allergic at anytime.
Myth #4: Maybe I have food allergies and don’t even know it! My internist
can give me a blood test and tell me everything I’m allergic to.
I see a lot of confusion around food allergy diagnostic tools and appropriate diagnosis in my practice. A test, either through the blood or skin, is not in and of itself a diagnostic for a specific food allergy.
As Dr. Dave Stukus said in his webinar on Kids with Food Allergies, “…tests are best utilized to help confirm a suspicious history for IgE mediated food allergies. They have high rates of falsely elevated and meaningless results and are not useful screening tools. The best test is actual ingestion of the food. In regards to IgE mediated allergy, you're almost always going to know if a certain food makes you sick, and there are no 'hidden' food allergies.”
Ultimately, the gold standard for diagnosing a food allergy is through a physician-supervised oral food challenge.
If you are diagnosed with a food allergy, discuss your anaphylaxis action plan with your board certified medical health professional. An anaphylaxis action plan should include information on:
- Avoiding known allergens
- Recognizing symptoms
- Having access to two epinephrine auto-Injectors
- Seeking immediate emergency medical care
MYTH #5: You can take a pill for food allergies.
As of right now, there is no cure for food allergies.
MYTH #6: There’s a treatment, I saw it on the news.
The only treatment is avoidance of the known allergen.
MYTH #7: Peanuts are the only real serious food allergy, anyway. So if I avoid them, I’m fine.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the top 8 foods that cause 90% of food allergic reactions are dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts. However, different people can be allergic to anything at any time.
MYTH #8: I can still eat something I’m allergic to. Anaphylaxis isn’t serious, I can take an antihistamine and that will take care of any anaphylactic symptoms.
As mentioned above, the most severe reaction to a food allergy is anaphylaxis - and it can be fatal. Anaphylaxis is a rapid and severe reaction. Do not hesitate to react to it appropriately. The first line of defense is an epinephrine auto injector.
Sloane Miller, food allergy counselor and author, is founder and President of Allergic Girl Resources, Inc., a consultancy devoted to food allergy awareness. She consults with private clients, the healthcare, food and hospitality industries, government and not-for-profit advocacy organizations. Ms. Miller earned her Master of Social Work at the New York University’s Silver School of Social Work and her Master of Fine Arts in Writing and Literature at Bennington College. In 2006 she started Please Don't Pass the Nuts, an award-winning blog for and about people affected by food allergies. In 2011, John Wiley & Sons published Ms. Miller's first book, Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well With Food Allergies, the definitive how-to guide. Ms. Miller combines a lifetime of personal experience and passion with professional expertise to connect with people about how to live safely, effectively, and joyously with food allergies. For more information, please visit Allergic Girl Resources, Inc.