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Tired But Happy Mom on Food Allergies and the City

The first time Older Daughter had a play date with a preschool friend, the friend’s mother had to debrief Tired But Happy Mom on an important issue. Her own daughter, the very nice mom (who was also a very good doctor) explained, was severely allergic to peanuts. Any cookie, piece of bread, even a bowl of blueberries that might contain trace elements from that morning’s cereal—which might have been made in a factory containing peanut products—could send her daughter into severe anaphylactic shock. The child’s throat would close up; she could potentially die. The nice mother handed Tired But Happy Mom an epi-pen just in case anaphylaxis were to occur accidentally and said not to worry about it—just to stick it in the three-year-old’s arm if there were any telling signs.

Not to worry? Tired But Happy Mom watched those girls like a starved hawk, clutching the epi-pen in her anxious talons, badgering that poor kid every other minute to ask if she felt okay. Honestly, what would you have done? This little girl could die from food allergies.

Since then, Tired But Happy Mom has noted that many schools have “no nut and seed” lunch policies because of the prevalence of students’ allergies to such foods—and she thanks her lucky stars that none of her kids are thusly afflicted. But she can’t remember anyone having such food allergies when she herself was a kid. It turns out that perhaps that’s because, unlike her city children and their peers, Tired But Happy Mom grew up in the suburbs. 

According to a study that will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, food allergies are more common among kids living in urban areas than elsewhere. Researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that 9.8 percent in cities have food allergies, compared with 7.2 percent in suburban areas, and 6.2 percent in rural areas. Moreover, city people have higher rates of asthma, eczema and hay fever. Household income, ethnicity, gender, age have nothing to do with it.

Some cities are worse off than others, said the study. The states with the highest rates of childhood food allergies were Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Alaska, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC. Nearly 40 percent of children in the study had undergone a life-threatening allergic reaction, according to their parents.

What the heck is going on with cities? The main answer is: Who knows. One hypothesis is that that kids’ early exposure to the bacteria found in rural areas protects them against allergies—a sort of coincidental homeopathic vaccination. Or it could be that pollutants in cities trigger allergies. But researchers have also posed another, more wide-reaching question: Could an increase in processed foods or a move away from locally grown foods have played a role in the rise in food allergies in recent decades? In other words, does junk food—and stuff like the now famous “pink slime,” that noxious pathogenic meat product that long formed the substance of so many public school lunch entrees—have anything to do with it?

Not so long ago, Tired But Happy Mom worked on a book with a nephrologist (a kidney doctor) whose specialty was what’s called “environmental health.” This area of medicine looks at environmental factors—such as food, water, air, cleaning products—and their impact on people’s health. And it is not good. Many of the pesticides commonly used on crops are known cancer-causing carcinogens. Not good.

Then, there is the matter of endocrine-disruptors. These chemicals are in a vast array of everyday products and food, and the net result is that they mimic estrogen in the body. And they have been found to be associated with a wide variety of diseases, from diabetes to obesity. And allergies. 

Substances such as phthalates, used in everything from plastic food containers to shampoos to cleaning products, are endocrine-disruptors. Endrocrine-disrupting stuff is also found in a variety of foods. In a study of 32 different common food products from three grocery stores in Dallas, for example, fish and other animal products were contaminated with endocrine-disrupting compounds.

Very not good.

All this makes Tired But Happy Mom wonder: Does busy city life and its dependence on packaged foods, compounded with flat-broke public school districts feeding kids processed lunches, have anything to do with all these allergies and more?

To be clear, Tired But Happy Mom is no hippie. In fact, having spent her formative years in Berkeley, she is basically obliged to be a hippie-hater. But several years ago, Tired But Happy Mom became so broke that she could no longer afford to buy organic stuff at the market. So, reluctantly, she went back to the land and grew her own fruits and veggies. She bought organic beans in bulk. Heck, she even cleaned with baking soda and vinegar because it was cheap and it wouldn’t kill anyone in the house.

It wasn’t that hard to do—for real, Tired But Happy Mom is way too wiped out to do anything hard. Moreover, it was super cheap, and everybody ate well. It’s not a life for everyone, but all this research does make the “Buy Local” food campaigns seem a little less precious and a great deal more serious. Plus, storing beans in mason jars? Very Martha Stewart. On a very un-precious budget.

 

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