Food hypersensitivities affect 250 million individuals globally, with divergent ideas regarding an increasing prevalence.
Increasing awareness of the impact of diet and nutrition on physical health has prompted discussions about food and its relationship with a wide range of distressing physical and psychological problems, especially children with food hypersensitivities.
Food hypersensitivity is unusual in that the affected child has a chronic condition, but remains well, with the potential to become acutely ill.
With no cure and strict avoidance recommended as the management strategy for food hypersensitivities, parents are faced with numerous daily allergy management tasks such as reading food labels, food substitution and preparation to minimise the children’s risk of exposure to the allergen. These activities are time consuming and significantly impact daily life. For parents in particular, allergy management and concerns for children’s safety can be distressing. Parental distress may in turn affect the food choice motivations required to maintain dietary change to eliminate the allergen, increasing the risk of the child’s safety.
What is Food Hypersensitivity?
Food hypersensitivity is used as a global term for an adverse reaction to food. It incorporates allergic hypersensitivity and non-allergic hypersensitivity as advised by the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (Johansson et al., 2001).
Allergic hypersensitivity involves an immunologic mechanism that is diagnosed or strongly suspected by a specialist. Non-allergic hypersensitivity describes food intolerance, or self-diagnosed food hypersensitivity. Food allergy is a medically diagnosed immunologic aetiology, while severe allergic reactions to food are classified as anaphylaxis (Johansson et al., 2001).
The global prevalence of food hypersensitivity is highly debated, due to variation in rates:
- Prescott et al. (2013) report that an estimated 220-250 million people globally may suffer from food hypersensitivities;
- A US study found a 38.7% prevalence of confirmed food allergies in children (Gupta et al., 2013);
- A recent estimate by the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) reports 21% of the Australian population has at least one allergy, and 10% of one-year-old children have a diagnosed food allergy (Osborne et al., 2011). This prevalence is higher than common childhood concerns such as asthma or eczema (Asher et al., 2006).
Food Hypersensitivities and Psychological Distress
For parents managing children with food hypersensitivities, psychological distress may be high due to management strategies and the risk of exposure to the allergen.
Distress is a subjective experience that is dependent upon the situation and how it is perceived. Distress has been shown to play a role in information learning, processing, and recall (Gillis, 1993), and so may compromise parental comprehension of, and adherence to, the child’s treatment.
Distress has also been shown to have negative effects on health and psychological symptoms, as well as cognitive processes such as memory and decision-making, affective or mood responses, and changes in behaviour (Steptoe, Pollard, & Wardle, 1995). Distress is commonly measured using anxiety and depression scales, as these constructs are manifestations of psychological distress (Marshall, 2014).
Parents with children with chronic conditions are suggested to suffer from greater psychological distress than parents with healthy children (Williams et al., 2009). For parents of children with chronic illness, common sources of distress can stem from a lack of understanding about the illness, demanding management strategies, and developmental needs (Sicherer, Noone, & Munoz-Furlong, 2001).
These causes of distress have also been reported in family members of children with food hypersensitivities (Springston et al., 2010). However, it is debated as to whether parents’ psychological distress can be perceived as beneficial, or as a negative outcome on the treatment of the child. Avery, King, Knight, and Hourihane (2003) suggest that high levels of anxiety experienced by individuals with food hypersensitivities, could be interpreted as protective if it encourages their parents to comply with avoidance strategies.
Mandell, Curtis, Gold, and Hardie (2005) support this theory, finding anxiety motivated parents to gain information and support regarding allergy management.
Should you or your family be managing food allergies, a psychologist can provide emotional support, and help you to find ways to ease distress.
Author: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist has a Masters in Health Psychology, and is able to treat clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She is experienced in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as children and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try online booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.