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Our Favourite Ways to Understand Allergies and Intolerances

The terms 'food allergy' and 'food intolerance' are heard in many conversations these days. Currently two children in every primary school classroom are affected by a food allergy. But when someone says they're intolerant to gluten, or allergic to peanuts, what does it actually mean?


We asked the two Mums (Fiona and Ellie) behind The Allergy-Free Baby & Toddler Cookbook to help us understand the differences.

Put simply, a food allergy is a reaction by the immune system to certain proteins in food. The reaction can happen immediately or it can be delayed. A food intolerance is an umbrella term for other reactions that don't involve the body's immune system and are usually triggered by substances other than food proteins. Intolerance tends to be less severe than an allergy, and mostly involves digestive problems.

Immediate allergic reactions

These can be anything from hives (which look like nettle rash), swollen lips or eyes, to vomiting or diarrhoea. The most severe symptoms - for example breathing difficulties or issues with the cardiovascular system (such as a drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness) are called anaphylaxis - or an anaphylactic reaction - and can be fatal.

Delayed allergic reactions

Often more difficult to diagnose, they can occur for up to three days after eating the relevant protein. Symptoms include eczema, vomiting, reflux, colic, stomach and digestive problems and faltering growth in children.

It is possible to have a combination of both delayed and immediate allergies where a child might have an immediate reaction to eggs for example and a delayed reaction to gluten.

The most common food allergies in children are to dairy, eggs and peanuts. Tree nuts, soya, gluten, sesame and proteins in many other foods can also cause reactions.

Lactose intolerance

A common form of intolerance where sufferers have a deficiency in the enzyme lactase, which means the sugar found in milk (called lactose) can't be broken down properly, resulting in digestive and other problems.

Lactose intolerance tends to be more common in adults than children but children may suffer from it temporarily after a bout of diarrhoea or suffering from a gastric bug.

Coeliac disease

Commonly assumed to be an allergy or intolerance, it is in fact neither. It is an autoimmune disease in which gluten triggers an unnecessary response by the body's immune system. Friendly fire from the immune system can damage the lining of the small intestine, affecting the absorption of food, causing a range of problems including abdominal pain, diarrhoea, poor growth, insufficient weight gain and, in extreme cases, malnutrition.

The effects

It can be daunting when your child is miserable and suffering with digestive problems and eczema, and it can be scary to witness your child having an immediate allergic reaction. We'd urge anyone who suspects that their child has an allergy or intolerance to see their GP to be referred to a specialist.

The consultant will be able to get to the bottom of your child's symptoms and, with the help of a specialist dietitian, put together a detailed diet plan to make sure your child is getting all the necessary nutrients when eliminating certain key foods. Note: It's really important not to cut out a main food group such as dairy, for example, from your child's diet without a medical diagnosis and specialist advice.

While food allergy can seem overwhelming - particularly at the beginning when you're new to it - we wholeheartedly believe it needn't dominate your life or your child's. You very quickly become used to checking labels, asking questions in restaurants and always carrying medication if you need to.

Fiona Heggie and Ellie Lux are two mums each with a child with multiple food allergies. Their latest book gives detailed advice on weaning in general and specific information about weaning a baby with one or more food allergies. It has over a 100 recipes ranging from first tastes for when you starting weaning all the way through to complete meals for toddlers.


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