The Rise of Food Allergies: A First World Problem?

caution 1If you have spent any time with children, have children of your own, or just watch the news regularly, you know that kids today are coping with some serious food allergies. Some of these allergies are deadly, which has led to bans on peanuts and other risky foods from schools and day care centers. It wasn’t always this way, though, so what’s going on? Why does one in 13 children in the U.S. have a food allergy? Why has the number of food allergies doubled in the last decade? The answer might be found in our modern, Western lifestyle. At the same time that we have been seeing more food allergies in the U.S., we have been living lives that are cleaner, safer, and filled with more nutritious foods and abundant supplements. Our relatively wealthy, plentiful lifestyles have largely improved our health, but as experts believe, are also contributing to the rise in food allergies. Several ideas about what exactly causes so many allergies have been posited and eliminated, but several have evidence to back them up. Allergists and immunologists believe that a combination of these factors is producing more food allergies:

  • The Hygiene Theory – The leading idea for increased food allergies is related to our excellent hygiene practices. We have access to antibiotics and antibacterial soaps. We have clean water and we are exposed to fewer parasites than at any time in the past, and in comparison to some areas of the world. This lack of exposure, experts say, has changed our immune systems. Allergies occur when the immune system reacts badly to something from the environment, such as pollen or peanuts. With no real enemies to attack, a child’s immune system is essentially finding something to do when it attacks foods that should be considered harmless.
  • Vitamin D Deficiency – Another aspect of our modern living is a result of getting less exposure to the sun: vitamin D deficiency. Being educated about skin cancer, we have limited our exposure by using sunscreen. Americans generally also spend more time indoors because of our sedentary lifestyles. While skin cancer rates might be lower because of this, it also means that many of us do not get enough vitamin D, which is produced in the body when we absorb sunlight. Vitamin D deficiencies have risen alongside food allergies, leading experts to believe there may be a connection.
  • Too Much Folic Acid – Another dietary theory is the supplementation with folic acid during pregnancy. About 20 years ago, which coincides with the rise in food allergies, pregnant women began using more folic acid supplements. Taking folic acid is known to protect infants from getting certain birth defects. At the same time, it seems there may be a connection between the use of folic acid and the increase in food allergies. Studies have already shown that there is a definite link between the supplement and the incidence of asthma.

What is certain is that children have more food allergies than ever before, and that our environment is causing the rise. Exactly which aspects of our environment are the culprits, and to what extent, remains the subject of research. Most experts now agree that some combination of these modern lifestyle factors is at the root of the problem.

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