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peanuts and peanut butter

The more I learn about food, the larger a responsibility I feel. Will it be healthy and nourishing for my body? Does it support our farmers, the economy, the sustainability of the planet? What do all these labels mean, and am I choosing what’s best? And, of course, will it be delicious?

Add in another person and there’s a whole new list of considerations, usually circling around the biggest conundrum: What can we agree on for dinner? (And who has time to make it tonight?)

The stress of having an equally pleasing meal for two adults is one thing. Now add in a tiny baby whose palate is just developing: What will she like or dislike? How many times do I have to introduce avocados before she says yum? And the largest worry for many new parents:


I’m not sure past generations had to worry about allergies as much as current parents do. Strike that: I know they didn’t, according to my mom and mother-in-law. Science shows the same, finding a startling rise in both food and environmental allergies among both adults and children.

In our upcoming story on allergies, health writer Laine Bergeson notes: “In 1970, only 10 percent of Americans suffered from a rhinitis allergy. . . . By 2010, the percentage had grown to 30 percent. The number of U.S. children with food allergies increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, while the number of kids with peanut allergies tripled from 1997 to 2008.”

Yes, you read that correctly: A 50 percent increase in food allergies, with peanut allergies tripling.

It’s why you don’t always get peanuts as a snack on airplanes anymore, and why my daughter’s daycare has signs clearly designating the building as a “peanut-free zone.”

Peanuts are a particularly problematic allergy. With the rise in peanut allergies that began in 1997, health officials began telling pregnant and nursing moms to avoid peanuts and to avoid feeding the legume to children until age 3. Those guidelines were rescinded in 2008, and a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2014 noted that children whose mothers consumed higher quantities of nuts had fewer allergies. Thank goodness I continued eating a variety of nuts throughout pregnancy and nursing (such an easy snack!).

Then, in January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) recommended feeding infants peanuts as young as 4 to 6 months old to give them a better chance of staving off potential allergies. Wait, what? We went from avoiding peanuts altogether until age 3 to making them an early-introduction food? The changing science and recommendations can make any new mom’s head spin.

The NIAID offers three guidelines for when to introduce peanuts, including one that states babies who already exhibit severe eczema, signs of an egg allergy — or both — should eat peanut butter at a young age, between 4 and 6 months, in order to reduce the risk of developing a peanut allergy later on.

If I had a 4-month-old with eczema, I can imagine how apprehensive I’d be about taking my pediatrician’s advice to give her a spoonful of peanut butter. But the NIAID issued its recommendations based on research that showed early exposure boosts immunity, and thus helps our bodies tolerate these foods.

“[One study, the LEAP study, a NIAID-funded randomized clinical trial involving more than 600 infants] clearly showed that introduction of peanut early in life significantly lowered the risk of developing peanut allergy by age 5,” says Daniel Rotrosen, MD, director of NIAID’s Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of early exposure to our environment positively boosting our immunity. It’s why I chose a variety of foods during pregnancy and nursing, why my daughter gets the culinary delights of our evening meals of baked chicken breast or thighs versus the sadly designated “kids’ food” of chicken nuggets (see “Anatomy of a Chicken Nugget” if you want to be grossed out yet informed). It’s why I don’t panic when her pacifier falls on the ground and why I skip antibacterial soaps.

The “hygiene hypothesis” has given me some relief as a mom (read more about it here), and has reassured my dad when he says “dirt is good for them” that some things don’t change.

Still, there’s the morphing environment and pollution to consider in relation to the rise in allergies, as integrative physician Leo Galland, MD, notes in his new book, The Allergy Solution.

But I’ll have to save that worry for tomorrow. Right now, I need to figure out what’s for dinner. Peanuts, anyone?


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