Children and Food Allergies

Children in the 21st century are developing more allergies and food intolerances. This may be due to less exposure to a wide range of bacteria needed to help the immune system mature and a fundamentally different diet. Also, problems with exclusively breastfeeding up to 6 months increases risk of developing food allergies. Here I examine the more common symptoms of childhood allergies, from asthma to ADHD.

Children and Food Allergies Children in the 21st century are developing more allergies and food intolerances. This may be due to less exposure to a wide range of bacteria needed to help the immune system mature and a fundamentally different diet. Also, problems with exclusively breastfeeding up to 6 months increases risk of developing food allergies. Here I examine the more common symptoms of childhood allergies, from asthma to ADHD.

The ADHD epidemic

ADHD has become a household name and is estimated to occur in a quarter of a million children under the age of 17. In the US the figure is rapidly approaching 3 million.

ADHD affects five times as many boys as girls. A third or more ADHD children will grow up to be ADHD adults. There is no laboratory or clinical test available yet that definitively diagnoses the condition; a diagnosis is based on observations of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity so serious they impair a child’s ability to function. Many children with ADHD take medication under a doctor’s prescription, usually the amphetamine-like drug Ritalin (methylphenidate) to help them pay attention, calm down, become less disruptive and perform better in school. More than 250,000 prescriptions for Ritalin are written each year.

Largely ignored, however, is the role that food allergy and chemical food additive sensitivities play in children with ADHD. In a classic study by Dr Joseph Egger and colleagues at the University of Munich in Germany, 76 children with severe ADHD were kept on a strict hypoallergenic (very low allergic potential) diet for 4 weeks.1 The results were amazing: 82 per cent of the children got better on the hypoallergenic diet. One out of four children with severe ADHD recovered completely. Even more remarkably, most of the other non-ADHD symptoms improved with the diet, as well. Here’s what happened.

Symptom Before diet change On diet
Antisocial behaviour 32 13
Headaches 48 9
Seizures/fits 14 1
Abdominal pain or discomfort 54 8
Chronic rhinitis 33 9
Leg aches 33 6
Skin rashes 28 9
Mouth ulcers 15 5
Emotional problems 7 0

Egger then gave the children foods with artificial food colours and preservatives. He found the most problematic common substances were the chemical additives tartrazine and benzoic acid (E102 and E210). However, no child reacted to these two food additives alone. A total of 46 different foods provoked allergic symptoms. Soya, cow’s milk, wheat, grapes, chocolate, oranges, eggs and peanuts were the most common food allergens. Foods that did not cause symptoms included cabbage, lettuces, cauliflower, celery – and duck eggs!

Having identified which foods each child was allergic to, he then ran a test, giving the children either a placebo or a tiny amount of the food allergen without either the child or the researcher knowing which was given (in other words, a placebo-controlled double-blind test). This showed these children definitely were reacting to specific foods and chemicals.

In the UK, the leading child psychiatrist Professor Eric Taylor was somewhat sceptical about the reports he was getting from parents saying their children were behaving better on diets excluding chemical additives and/or common food allergens. He decided to investigate with another double-blind trial.2 He took 78 hyperactive children and placed them on a ‘few foods’ elimination diet. Fifty-nine of the children showed improved behaviour during the trial.

Autism

Among autistic children the evidence for food allergy, especially allergy to gluten grains and milk,...

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