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Kids and Health Care: Food/Allergy Link is Weak

People -- especially expecting and new parents -- often worry a lot about allergies and other chronic conditions in their children. Various theories about how to prevent or reduce the effects of these conditions have bounced around medicine and alternative-medicine circles for generations.

A report delivered at a March 2004 meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology by a group of researchers from the University of Manitoba suggested that some of these theories are more fiction than fact.

The Manitoba researchers had a group of ob/gyn's ask their patients -- pregnant and breastfeeding women -- to avoid various foods supposedly associated with allergies. These foods included milk, eggs and nuts. The women were selected from a larger Canadian study of asthma and allergies, so their children were all considered high risk (defined as having either one first-degree relative with asthma or two first-degree relatives with some allergic condition) for allergic conditions.

The researchers counseled the mothers to avoid peanuts, nuts, fish and decrease milk and egg consumption in the third trimester and during the first year of breastfeeding. The women were also asked to delay the introduction of solids for six months and only introduce milk after one year, eggs after two years and nuts after three years. The researchers then tracked the allergy histories of the children every two months for several years. Their conclusion: Skipping the suspect foods didn't do anything.

Specifically, when the kids were one, there was no statistically significant difference between the kids whose mothers had skipped the suspect foods and a control group (taken from the same larger asthma study) whose mothers had unrestricted diets. About 4 percent of the children in each group were allergic to milk; a few more of the kids in the test group than in the control group were allergic to eggs -- but that difference wasn't significant.

At age two, there was a significant difference between the two groups in allergy to eggs. Responses to the other foods were about the same. By age seven, the difference had shifted to nuts; the test kids were slightly more sensitive. And, across the board, the rates of sensitivity dropped as the kids got older.

Avoiding the suspect foods -- which was supposed to prevent allergies -- actually made sensitivities worse. This result was surprising. The researchers agreed...but noted that the sample was small, so their conclusions might not apply to everyone.

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