How to manage food allergies
Food allergies and intolerances in children have become the topic du jour in parenting circles and among health professionals. Whether the increased interest is merely a raising of awareness, or the true causes of the allergies and intolerances are the preservatives, chemicals and additives found in foods, separates the experts. There is also speculation that a generally more chemical-rich environment can increase susceptibility to food allergies. With so much pressure on the immune and digestive systems, it’s hardly surprising that allergies are affecting children’s immature systems much more than in the past.
Eating organically can reduce the stress on children’s immune systems by lessening the toxic load of unnecessary chemicals, pesticides and phosphates and avoiding produce that has been picked unripe — a practice that doesn’t allow the important nutrients to fully develop and provide vital nutrition for the immune and digestive systems of growing bodies.
Food allergies and intolerances have a different physiological base and vary in severity and implication. An intolerance is an unpleasant reaction to food, such as a runny nose after a hot curry or a particularly antisocial aftermath to a bean casserole. Some intolerances are more severe with symptoms that may include bloating and diarrhoea.
An allergy, on the other hand, involves the reaction of the mast cells found under the lining of the skin, gut, lungs, nose and eyes. These cells are our protective force against worms and parasites. In allergic people, these cells react to the allergen when it presents itself.
“Mast cells are like ‘landmines’, and contain ‘bags’ filled with irritant chemicals including histamine. Mast cells are armed with proteins called IgE antibodies, which act as remote sensors in the local environment. A person who is allergic to peanuts, for example, will have IgE antibodies capable of recognising the shape of peanut protein (the allergen) in much the same way that a lock ‘recognises’ the shape of a key. When this happens, mast cells are triggered to dump their contents (such as histamine) into the tissues, causing an allergic reaction.”1
Common food allergies and intolerances
According to Kristina Hoffman Philpott MD, “The most common form of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which occurs in individuals with lactase deficiency. Lactase is an enzyme made by the cells lining the stomach. It is responsible for breaking down lactose, the simple sugar found in dairy products. The symptoms of lactose intolerance are gas, bloating, abdominal pain and sometimes diarrhoea.
“The most common food allergens for American children are milk, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, wheat and fish. In adults with food allergies, the most common culprits are shellfish (such as shrimp, escargot, squid, crab and clams), peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pine nuts and almonds), fish and eggs.
“A true food allergy is an abnormal response to a food, triggered by the immune system. When the immune system overreacts to a food protein, an allergic reaction may result. Food intolerances differ from allergies in that they do not involve the immune system. It’s important to identify true food allergies because these reactions can be severe and even life threatening.”2
Eating with awareness
Food allergies and intolerances grow up with their hosts and remain active in adult life so it’s fascinating to speculate on their origins. Can they be attributed to genetic predisposition? Are they linked to one’s race, with lactose intolerance being far more common in non-Caucasian races, for example? Or has the degradation of our environments and mechanised mass production changed our essential relationship with food?
Ingesting nourishment is a thing we do every day (usually three times a day), often without thought. When I wake in the morning I break my fast with fresh juice, toast and coffee. Later, I have lunch and dinner and usually leave it at that for the day, before sleeping and repeating the cycle once again. So what is the essential nature of this most ordinary of activities? What secrets lie at the heart of understanding nutrition?
When we do things unconsciously, or without considered thought, we are prone to repeating the mistakes of our forebears. Why, for instance, do I eat toast for breakfast? Because my father did, and his father before him. Is there intrinsic nutritional value in perpetuating the eating habits of a long line of toast-eaters? (If we’re talking about organic sourdough bread, then perhaps.) The way we carry out many of our basic and most important activities, including eating, is handed down generationally and is often based on nothing more than tradition.
The Greek root of the word diet is diatia, which refers to a way of life toward wellness and is more than just a regime of eating dos and don’ts. It understands the link between how you live your life and what and how you eat. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (342-270BC), who held that the highest good in life is pleasure, stressed the importance of eating with friends. I personally know that when I eat with good friends, I eat with a greater degree of joy and don’t eat too much, which I might do when I eat alone. Good conversation and the sharing of gratitude for a well-prepared dish is the reason, probably, we all started eating out at friends’ places and socialising in restaurants in the first place.
Where we eat and how we eat impacts on our digestion and therefore our ability to benefit from good food. Today, the level of noise in many restaurants in Australian cities has taken much of the joy of keen conversation away. “How’s the steak?” we shout above the nightclub din. Consequently, dishes in restaurants must be designed to excite in order to rise above the clamour and hustle and bustle of busy eating houses. So they are usually rich and high in sugar and fats. After all, how else do you get noticed in a crowded room? By being extra-spicy, sensual and mouth-watering, of course! The kind of ambience we find in many restaurants today is part of a cyclical trend that will no doubt shift again, away from the current din.
The digestive process
What happens when we eat? The digestive process begins in the mouth when the food is chewed and mixed with saliva. Once the food has travelled down into the stomach, the digestive process continues with acids and enzymes released from the stomach, liver and pancreas. At this stage, the food has been reduced to a liquid through mastication by the muscles of the stomach wall working in conjunction with acids and enzymes.
Here, the food’s large molecules of carbohydrates, proteins and fats are broken down to even smaller particles the body can absorb. Complex carbohydrates are reduced to simple sugars by the enzymes sucrase, amylase, maltase and lactase. Fats are separated into fatty acids and glycerol by the lipase enzymes. Protein becomes amino acids transformed by the enzymes pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. Moving then to the small intestine, which on average receives around 6.5 litres of fluid from the stomach, salivary glands, pancreas and liver on a daily basis, this fluid is absorbed by the small intestine and then transferred by osmosis through the cell walls, this being totally dependent on the level of sodium present within the cells (the vital importance of salt in our diet).
The small intestine is responsible for virtually all the absorption of nutrients into the blood, which includes electrolytes such as sodium, chloride and potassium, and all the organic molecules, which include glucose, amino acids and fatty acids. The small intestine is lined with hairlike projections called villi that are close to many tiny blood vessels, and nutrients are passed through the villi into these capillaries.
So the starchy foods we eat, like bread, cereals, rice, pasta and potatoes, are broken down from complex carbohydrates into simple sugars or monosaccharides, as are carbohydrates derived from lactose and sucrose. We are left with glucose, galactose and fructose from maltase, lactase and sucrase, respectively, and these make their way into the bloodstream and give us energy.
Proteins are almost always not absorbed directly but are digested into amino acids or dipeptides and tripeptides, which are likewise absorbed into the blood.
Fats are broken down by bile salts and the enzyme lipase through the process of emulsification to become fatty acids (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and monoglycerides. These are absorbed differently from the simple sugars and amino acids by diffusion across the plasma membrane.
One well-known lipid triglyceride is cholesterol, which is vital to cell membranes, sex hormones and the digestion of fats. It is, however, carried through the bloodstream by lipoproteins — low-density lipoproteins in particular. The buildup of these in the blood can cause plaque deposits on artery walls and lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Enzymes are present in just about everything we eat and are necessary for most of the chemical reactions within the body. As proteins, they are the catalysts for so many of the metabolic functions that give us our energy and the spark of life. With more than 5000 now identified, they are involved in all the bodily processes that lead to movement, thinking, digestion and maintenance of the immune system. Cooking food at temperatures higher than 52°C destroys the enzymes, so we derive most of our enzymes from raw plant life. New research suggests that a diet poor in raw foods places a strain on the pancreas to keep producing enzymes for healthy digestion and metabolism. Studies have also shown that as we age we produce less of our own enzymes and diet becomes even more important for healthy functioning.
Research has also shown that the body recycles enzymes by absorbing them through the large intestine and colon and then sending them back up through the bloodstream to the small intestine to be used again, which may further indicate their vital importance to the human body.
Lactose intolerance, or lactase deficiency, is an inability to break down the carbohydrate lactose, usually found in milk and other dairy products. This can cause digestive problems resulting in abdominal pain and diarrhoea. The enzyme lactase is responsible for breaking down lactose into simple sugars so we can derive the energy benefit from the carbohydrate. Without enough lactase in the mucus of the small intestine, the lactose finds its way into the large intestine and is partially broken down by the bacteria there. This can be experienced as bloating and bowel problems. If you think you may be lactose intolerant, you can check by first eliminating foods that contain lactose; for example, dairy foods predominantly derived from cows; foods containing milk solids, like milk chocolate; milk breads; processed foods containing milk products; and soups and sauces that are dairy based. If your physical reactions cease during this break and then reappear when the foods are reintroduced, this is a good case for lactose intolerance.
Something you can do apart from completely avoiding these highly nutritious foods is to eat fermented milk products like cheese and yoghurt as these don’t cause as many problems. Goat’s or sheep’s milk products like fetta (most fettas are not made from sheep’s milk, so read the packaging), pecorino and goat’s cheese are delicious and don’t contain the same level of lactose.
Avoid low-fat milks, as they move quickly through your digestive system, causing a reaction. The fats in full-cream milk actually slow down the process and give the lactase more time to break down the lactose.
Soy products are a good source of calcium and can be used in some cases as an alternative. Acidophilus is a natural source of lactase. There are some natural enzyme supplements that help the body’s own lactase enzymes to digest milk products and studies are proving these are very effective.
Coeliac disease and gluten intolerance
Although two different conditions, they share a problem with digestion of the wheat protein, gluten. In coeliac disease it’s an apparent autoimmune reaction that causes the destruction of the villi. It’s believed that when the gliadin wheat protein is ingested by coeliac disease sufferers, the glutamine found within that binds to tissue transglutaminase and forms glutamic acid and the resultant gliadin epitopes are recognised as foreign by the host cells. This causes inflammation and mutation of the villi structures within the lumen. The consequences are varied and symptoms can range from many to none at all. They may include bloating and stomach cramping; nausea and vomiting; fatigue and lethargy; weight loss; anaemia; and diarrhoea or constipation.
Basically, the absorption of the nutrients is not occurring and there is an inflammatory reaction that can manifest across a broad spectrum in different people. The only treatment for coeliac disease is a gluten-free diet. Wheat is not the only grain to cause this reaction, as rye, barley and oats contain proteins called prolamines which have a similar effect.
The whole picture
The control of this amazing digestive system is achieved by electrical and hormonal messages in concert, coming from both the digestive function’s own nervous and endocrine systems and from the central nervous system and the adrenal glands. The body is a finely tuned instrument of incredible complexity that is continually interacting within itself and from without, meaning the ability to digest and metabolise food into energy is affected by myriad internal and external factors.
To simply focus on one particular aspect to the exclusion of others — for instance, a particular food or chemical ingredient within a food — is often missing the whole picture. It’s not only what we eat, but how we eat and under what conditions, both externally and internally, that can seriously impact on our health. Like an extremely delicate fulcrum, we are all about balance, and achieving optimum nutrition may involve adjustments in not just what we ingest but in our outlook and lifestyle, too.
Awareness of food allergies and intolerances may be just the beginning and they are quite likely pointers to a whole host of changes that may involve deeper attitudinal shifts. Our attachment to what has been scientifically proven and our quickness to ridicule anything outside the known scientific paradigm can be seen as resistance to the expansiveness of enlightenment.
For what is scientifically known is forever changing and what we know now about nutrition is only beginning to unfold. New nutritional answers are being revealed all the time, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle nobody yet knows in its entirety
1. “Food Allergy — Overview”, Allergy Capital website, www.allergycapital.com.au/Pages/food1.html
2. Kristina Hoffman Philpott, “Food Allergy or Intolerance? Get the Facts Before You Pack Your Child’s Lunch”, Palo Alto Medical Foundation website, www.pamf.org/children/newsletter/foodallergies.html
“Fundamental Physiology and Anatomy of the Digestive System” http://arbl.cvmbs.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/digestion/
The Coeliac Society of Australia www.coeliac.org.au