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Are You Allergic to Breakfast?

May 22, 2012

Food Allergies Can Cause Serious Problems

While eggs are commonly found on the breakfast menu, they are also one of eight food items that account for 90 percent of food allergies. The list also includes milk, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamias, pistachios, and walnuts), fish, and shellfish. In people with food allergies, even a tiny amount of the food can trigger a response, according to the American Medical Association.

"The symptoms can range from mild to severe," said Nachal Bhangal, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "A food allergy can be fatal if the reaction is severe enough to cause anaphylaxis, which blocks the airways and makes it difficult to breathe."

Being lactose-intolerant is not the same as being allergic to milk. Food allergies are often confused with food intolerance, which is less serious and does not involve the immune system. Food intolerance is more common than food allergies and occurs when the digestive system cannot properly break down food, according to the American Medical Association.

A food allergy is an adverse immune response to a food, according to Bhangal. The immune system produces antibodies to protect the body from foreign substances like germs. But in people with food allergies, the body sees the protein in food as a foreign substance and produces antibodies to protect against it, she explained. While there is no cure for food allergies, children can outgrow them.

Food allergy symptoms include runny nose, itchy skin, rash or hives, tingling in the tongue or lips, tightness in the throat, hoarse voice, wheezing, coughing, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, and diarrhea. Anaphylaxis occurs when several of these symptoms happen simultaneously and may include decreased blood pressure, loss of consciousness, narrowed airways, and tongue swelling, Bhangal said.

"People with severe food allergies who are at risk for anaphylaxis should carry around an epinephrine pen," she added. "Epinephrine can prevent anaphylactic shock, which can occur with a severe allergic reaction."

Read Labels

People who have food allergies need to be very diligent about reading labels, Bhangal said. Just about every packaged food item sold in America contains a label that lists the ingredients.

"But you have to be careful when reading food labels because some ingredients are not always clear," Bhangal said. "You need to familiarize yourself with the verbiage used on labels so you can understand what to look out for depending on your particular food allergy."

When eating in restaurants, people with food allergies need to ask their waiter for a list of ingredients, she said. But that can be risky because restaurants often purchase already-prepared sauces and mixes and the staff may not know all of the ingredients.

"If you have a serious food allergy, it may be best to stick to the basics and avoid prepared and packaged foods with a long list of ingredients," Bhangal said. "Eat more fresh foods and avoid a lot of sauces. Basically, if the ingredients can't be verified, it has to be considered unsafe to eat for someone with a food allergy."

She said there is also a high risk for food contamination, in restaurant kitchens and at home. Food can become contaminated by other foods prepared on the same surfaces and stored in the same containers. Also, food that is deep-fried in oil used to fry fish and shrimp can be contaminated by those foods.

"Food labels are generally good about identifying when a food item is prepared in a place where foods with nuts, wheat, and soy are also prepared, so you know there is a possibility of cross-contamination," Bhangal added. "But it's hard to know how careful they are in a restaurant kitchen. Even in your own kitchen, you have to be diligent about avoiding cross-contamination. You have to keep foods separated if a family member has a food allergy. Use a separate cutting board and food preparation area for that person. Have a separate set of containers for storing food. There is no reason people with food allergies can't enjoy food, they just have to be careful."

To learn about nutrition counseling services available at Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com/nutrition or call (510) 745-6542.