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Why do so many kids have food allergies these days?

(Photo by Donnie Ray Jones, CC Images)
LISTEN: Why are so many kids allergic to peanuts these days?

When I was a kid, every girl in my class was named Jennifer and we all had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tucked into our lunch boxes. But these days, peanut butter is banned from many classrooms because so many kids have serious, if not deadly, food allergies.

If it seems like more kids have food allergies these days, it’s because it’s true.

“In a recent study, the increase in food allergies has been about 50 percent in the last 15 years,” says Dr David Hoffman, regional medical director at US HealthWorks in Federal Way. “Kids are getting allergies and are becoming allergic at an alarming rate to milk and eggs and fish and nuts and peanuts.”

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One theory on food allergies

Hoffman says there are two theories on why so many more people have allergies compared to the recent past.

“One theory is the hygiene theory,” Hoffman said. “It’s thought that the immune system is like a gun, loaded and cocked and ready to fire and kill a bacteria that inappropriately gets in the system.”

“Well, we’ve cleaned up our food supply so much, there are very few bacteria that are potentially harmful getting in the system,” he said. “So here you have this immune system all ready, primed up, and it starts firing at things it shouldn’t fire at like an almond or a shrimp or wheat.”

A second theory on food allergies

“Our plan in medicine to protect really young children from certain food groups has been misguided,” Hoffman said. “We should be exposing children at an earlier date, when they’re capable of chewing and swallowing certain things, to more and more varieties of foods.”

“In other words, we’ve overprotected them,” he said. “By the time we introduce them to the food, they don’t interpret it as a natural, healthy thing to eat and they develop an allergic reaction, which is inappropriate to that substance.”

For example, some parents have reacted to the peanut allergy phenomenon by not feeding their young children peanuts.

Why does the body fire its defenses at the same foods in different people’s bodies? Why is it always peanuts or milk or shellfish?

“Highly complex proteins are most likely to be targeted by the immune system,” Hoffman said. “These food products have highly complex proteins. It’s not that they can’t be broken down and utilized by the human body, they can. Most people do fine with them. But the immune system sees this complex protein and suspects that it’s an invading organism coming into the system and attacks it.”

Dr. Hoffman is also glad that many soaps are removing the anti-bacterial element, that we need to stop trying to be so clean that we strip away the good bacteria we need.

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