Food allergies are a growing problem, and for those affected, treatment is usually limited to avoiding allergic foods. However, a comprehensive study from the UK has now found that early exposure to certain foods in children is associated with a reduced risk of allergies, and interestingly, the correlation is clear even if subjects do not adhere strictly to the system.
The Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) study recruited more than 1,300 babies from England and Wales. The children were divided into two groups – the Early Introduction Group (EIG) – fed allergy-prone foods such as eggs and peanuts from the age of three months old and being regularly breastfed. For the Standard Introduction Group (SIG), the food is fed until six months old.
The results are very clear and analyzed in three new papers. Children who were fed the food earlier had a much lower rate of allergies to them than those who didn’t eat it until later. For children who were sensitive to signs of certain foods at the beginning of the study, 34.2 percent of the children who waited six months would continue to develop complete allergies. During the three-month exposure, only 19.2% had allergies.
There are similar results in a particular group. One-third of children with peanut allergies from the beginning had peanut allergies, compared with only 14.3 percent of EIG. Nearly half of egg-sensitive children in SIG end up with allergies, compared with 30% of EIG.
For those who do not have a high risk of allergy, feeding food early does not increase their risk of allergies. This is in stark contrast to some earlier assumptions and recommendations that children should avoid allergic foods before six months of child.
Having said that, the procedure seems to apply only to infants who are already at high risk of allergies. For those who showed no signs of allergy in the study, there did not appear to be a statistical difference in allergy rates, whether they were fed within three or six months.
Michael Perkin, co-lead in the EAT study, said: “We have shown that the early introduction of allergy-causing foods can significantly reduce the risk of peanut and egg allergies in high-risk infants. Our study adds evidence that early introduction of allergy-prone foods may play an important role in controlling the allergy epidemic. “
Perhaps the most interesting result of the study is that if parents don’t stick to the program, it doesn’t seem to matter much. The researchers developed a system in which parents of children in EIG follow edify, instructing them to regularly give their children high doses of five allergic foods. Only 42% of the participants in the EIG managed to stick with it, but allergy rates still declined.
One of the papers investigates why parents do not follow the guidelines. The three most common reasons are that children refuse food, caregivers worry about allergic reactions, and this is impractical in the participants’ lifestyle. These barriers may need to be considered when developing new guidelines for parents to reduce their children’s risk of food allergies.
“As we release new infant feeding guidelines, these findings will debate whether efforts to introduce potentially allergenic foods into the infant diet are best targeted at those most at risk or more generally for infants.” Michael Walker, a referee consultant at the government’s Chemist Lab, which was not involved in the study, said. “Does this mean that parents should feed babies eggs and peanuts?” Yes. However, for those who are particularly at risk, such as moderate to severe eczema, infants who are already sensitive or other high-risk infants, or who may have a family history of allergies, consult their family doctor in advance. “
The papers were published in the journal The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.