Peanuts have been taboo in diets for children in the past, but now new health guidelines released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommend early nut introduction in children’s diets.
The new recommendations include adding peanut extract or powder to finger foods or pureed food even before six months of age and even if your child is allergy-prone. Doctors say it is safe. However, whole peanuts shouldn’t be given to young children who aren’t ready for whole foods — they’re a choking hazard.
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The science-backed theory is this: If these guidelines are widely implemented, the amount of children who typically develop a lethal nut allergy should dramatically drop. Sadly, peanut allergies resulting in death from anaphylaxis are higher than any food allergy recorded. Deaths are rare, but children who have developed peanut allergies usually don’t grow out of it.
The latest national health guidelines are set to change all that by encouraging early exposure to nuts. At this young age, the body is more likely to tolerate a potential allergen than it is to react to it.
So what’s up with the about-face when it comes to nut allergies — and everything else? As parents, it’s challenging to decide what’s best for your kid when conventional wisdom shifts so frequently.
In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents to keep peanuts out of the diets of children who posed a high allergy risk until the age of three. However, peanut allergies were here to stay and their numbers were on the rise. In 2010, about two percent of U.S. children had a nut allergy, increasing from one percent in 1999, but luckily the AAP stopped recommending this in 2008.
What’s different about the Great Nut Allergy Switcheroo? And why should parents follow this advice?
The new recommendations arise from various studies done over the last few years challenging the banning of peanuts during infancy. This has long been a standard practice in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Some believed there must be a better way.
The latest guidelines section off children by risk. Infants who are low-risk, without an egg allergy or eczema, and who are consuming solid foods, may be introduced to peanuts as early as six months. Children who are a moderate risk and have mild eczema may sample peanut-containing foods around the same age.
However, infants who are high-risk, with an egg allergy or severe eczema, should be introduced to foods that contain peanuts around four to six months — after they’ve started solid foods and had a doctor evaluation.
An allergy specialist is the best doctor for the evaluation. They will order an allergy test and likely try out a peanut-containing food during your child’s visit to test the waters. If a slight sensitivity to peanuts is revealed, that doesn’t mean the child is allergic — they could still benefit from eating foods that contain peanuts. A child who has a very strong reaction to a sensitivity test may have the allergy already. The doctor could recommend total avoidance of nuts and peanut-containing products.
So how do you begin introducing nut foods into your child’s diet at such a young age? You can do it safely by mixing a teaspoon or more of creamy peanut butter and warm water until it reaches a pureed or soupy consistency. You could also mix in a little of this peanut puree with pumpkin or other preferred fruit or vegetable purees.
Do not let peanuts be the first solid food your child eats. Start with peanut-containing foods like creamy peanut butter and keep your child on a regular intake schedule, such as two or three times every week, over the course of childhood. When your child has moved on to other solid foods, try introducing whole peanuts with a flavorful twist, such as chocolate-covered peanuts or toffee peanuts. It’s more likely your child will eat and like them this way.
If your child welcomes nuts into their diet, they also get a delicious nutritional boost. Many kids were told that nuts were constipating and fattening as they grew up, but science is here once again to set the record straight.
Nuts are a powerhouse of nutrition and various studies have shown that the consumption of nuts significantly lowers mortality rates — even in those who are at high risk for cardiovascular disease:
• The Nurses’ Health Study involving 76,464 females and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study involving 42,498 men discovered that people were less likely to die when they consumed more nuts — especially from heart disease and cancer.
• A study conducted by the Vanderbilt University of Medicine, with over 200,000 male and female participants, revealed lower mortality rates, when more nuts were eaten, from “all causes” and especially stroke and heart disease.
• Another study featured in JAMA Pediatrics found pregnant women who consumed the most peanuts or nuts, in general, were less likely to give birth to children with a nut allergy. The risk reduction was at its highest in children whose mothers had consumed nuts at least five times a month.
Parents feeding their children nuts from an early age won’t prevent every individual case of an allergy. However, it is strongly likely that the number of cases of nut allergies will be reduced in the coming years, and the nutritional benefits of nut consumption in the long run are powerful reasons to introduce nuts earlier into a child’s diet.
Parents feel like nuts when they’re trying to decide what’s best for their child and they’re bombarded by contradicting information. But sometimes it’s better just to eat the nuts than to feel like one.
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