Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital January 14, 2014
Nuts are rich in protein, fiber, folic acid, vitamin E, and healthy fats. Research studies suggest nuts may have many health benefits, making them an important part of a balanced diet. However, for some people, nuts are health hazards. In the United States, 1.5 million people are severely allergic to peanuts alone. Half the people allergic to peanuts are also allergic to tree nuts. Tree nuts are large, edible seeds of trees and include cashews, almonds, pecans, walnuts, beechnuts, and pistachios.
What Are Food Allergies?
Food allergies are the immune system’s reaction to proteins in food. Reactions can be mild to severe, in some cases causing life-threatening anaphylactic shock. These reactions are referred to as an “allergic cascade.” First the allergic food, such as peanuts, enters the body by ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact. The body senses the protein in peanuts as a foreign invader. In response to the threat, IgE antibodies are released into the bloodstream, triggering the release of substances called histamines. Histamines cause the allergic response.
Multiple body systems can be involved in the allergic response. A typical reaction starts with hives – raised spots on the skin that turn red and itch. Sneezing, runny nose, or gastrointestinal upset also may occur and sometimes can improve with antihistamines. These symptoms may be followed by swelling in various parts of the body, including breathing passages. Bronchodilators may help relieve shortness of breath and wheezing.
Severe reactions can cause difficulty with breathing, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. The most severe reaction, anaphylaxis, results in very low blood pressure (shock) that requires emergency treatment. Severely allergic individuals need to carry self-injectable adrenaline to slow down the cascade of symptoms.
Consult your physician if you believe you have a food allergy. Clinicians use several methods to help diagnose food allergies.
Managing Nut Allergies
While mild allergic reactions may be manageable with medications, the most successful method of managing peanut or tree nut allergies is to avoid them, including hidden sources. Besides peanuts themselves, peanut protein can be found in hydrolyzed plant or vegetable protein; cereals; ice cream and other desserts; Chinese, Indonesian, or Thai foods; salad dressings; curry and satay sauces, and topical creams and shampoos. Note that this is not an all-inclusive list.
Always read packaging labels carefully for information on the ingredients. Also, packages may contain a warning indicating that the product is processed in the same facility as nuts. If you are unsure about the ingredients or processing, contact the manufacturer. Highly allergic people need to avoid anything or anyone who comes in contact with peanuts. Children who are highly allergic must avoid contact with or inhalation of any peanut products.
What Foods Can Replace the Nutrition in Nuts?
When nuts cannot be a part of your diet due to allergies, the foods below will help you replace the nutritional benefits nuts provide:
- Folate: green leafy vegetables (spinach, collard greens, kale, Brussels sprouts), beans, orange juice, and fortified cereals
- Healthy fats: olive oil, olives, canola oil, salmon, sardines, and avocados
- Protein: chicken, fish, pork, beans, eggs, tofu, and cheese
- Fiber: whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa), fruits, and vegetables (fresh or frozen without added salt)
- Vitamin E: wheat germ, green leafy vegetables (spinach, collard greens, turnip greens), vegetable oils, and avocado
Visit the following sites for more information about food allergies:
- Food Allergies: Accurate Diagnosis Is Key
- When Did Food Become Dangerous?
- Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)