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What's With All The Food Allergies?

Difficult Diagnosis

Because of the room for error and discrepancies, medical researchers are calling for stricter food-allergy diagnosing guidelines, as evidenced in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It's a sentiment that many anxious parents echo—including those who may be restricting their children's diets unnecessarily—and a hot topic on online message boards, where worried parents flock for information and support. "There is so much misinformation, ignorance and insensitivity concerning food allergies," one mom wrote on the Facebook page for Kids With Food Allergies, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group. "More research needs to be done, and scientists need to generate alternate theories and actually test them," wrote another.

The key to wading through the world of food allergies is for parents to arm themselves—and their allergists—with as much information as possible, says Lynda Mitchell, president of Kids With Food Allergies. Dr. Wolf agrees: "Diagnosing a food allergy is easier when parents provide a comprehensive family history, food diaries and a complete list of symptoms." After all, parents are on the frontline. They've seen the symptoms firsthand, and they know whether their child has or hasn't tolerated certain foods in the past. "The bottom line is, don't base a diagnosis on test results alone," Mitchell says.

It took dozens of doctors and tests to properly diagnose Sara and Daniel Atkins' four children. This went on for years, especially for 6-year-old Tevye and 4-year-old Freida, who both have asthma. Local doctors were befuddled and put the kids on highly restrictive diets, leaving only a handful of foods. Even then, conditions worsened. Freida, a toddler at the time, stopped gaining weight and began losing her hair. "They weren't getting better," Sara says. "But nobody was listening to us."

Desperate for answers, the Atkins enlisted the help of a team of allergists in Denver, more than a thousand miles away from their home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, and spent weeks there reviewing their children's symptoms and performing tests. "We learned that Tevye and Freida's immune systems were so compromised (from eczema) that they were reacting to anything and everything," Sara says. Along with brothers Zusil, 7, and Moshe, 1, both kids participated in more than 80 oral food challenges combined. "They passed almost everything they tried," Sara says. "It was wonderful, but frustrating too. Tevye avoided wheat for three years unnecessarily. Had we stayed with the original diagnosis, we'd still be avoiding more than 90 foods that are perfectly safe."

None of this is to say that food allergies aren't real; the Atkins children still experience severe reactions to foods—just like thousands of children across America. Sarah Harris' son is one of them. The Moseley, Virginia, stay-at-home mother of two boys had no idea why her oldest child, Evan, screamed in inconsolable misery for months shortly after he was born. His pediatrician told her it was colic. But at 9 months old, after three bites of baby yogurt, Evan developed a large red rash around his mouth. On her doctor's advice, Harris waited a couple of days and then fed Evan yogurt again. The lower half of his face became red. Subsequent skin tests showed that Evan had allergies to milk, eggs, wheat, oats, barley, cantaloupe, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and other fish. The Harris' altered their lifestyle and removed the allergenic foods from Evan's diet. His skin and comfort level improved immediately. "Talk about mommy guilt," she says. Now age 3 and starting preschool, Evan has successfully reintroduced wheat and eggs into his diet after completing oral food challenges. He also eats oats regularly without incident, but other foods still remain off-limits