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12 Days of Wellness

Holiday Meals and Food Allergies - new research for a fresh approach

On the 8th day of Wellness our theme is foods, like dairy (8 Maids a Milking?), that bring a new level of thought to holiday meal planning. Whether you have, or know someone who has, a full-blown food allergy, a mild food allergy, a sensitivity, an intolerance, dietary lifestyle restrictions or specialized diet, the individualized nature of this area of our lives often brings added stress to holiday gatherings around the dining table.

Instead of the usual advice “provide a list of ingredients to accompany your covered dish” or “check with all guests to see if there are any food allergies, preferences or restrictions” we are taking a different approach this Holiday season.

The number of people with food allergies in America has doubled each of the last four decades. New research has revealed that more than 32 million people in the US have at least one food allergy. About 6 million American children, which is about 2 kids in every classroom, have an diagnosed food allergy and many more have food sensitivities (source). This topic is a vast area full of science, medicine, beliefs, theories, and controversy over specifics, which often leads to conflict when we gather around the table.

So what does science say about the connection between gathering around the dining table for meals and allergies?

Tia Bastian, Research Associate, Blue Zones reports that recent research supports the theory that family meals offer more than just bonding and comedy. They are shown to increase the number of fruits and vegetables kids eat, improve performance in school, and decrease their risk of eating disorders and later alcohol and drug abuse.

Tia points to research published in the journal Thorax, part of the BMJ group showing that eating fruit appeared to protect young people from asthma and allergies. Eating three or more portions a week reduced the severity of the symptoms by 11% among teenagers and 14% among younger children. This research came out of a large collaborative project called the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC), which involves nearly 2 million children in more than 100 countries, making it the biggest of its kind.

In addition to adding more fruit to your Holiday meal shopping list, here is a list of reasons why eating together around the dining table reduces the severity of allergies and asthma in children, teens and adults over time.

(And if you don’t eat together that often, here’s a few excellent reasons to add family meals to your New Years Resolutions.)

How to gain the biggest health and wellness benefits from Holiday gatherings around the dining table.

1. Stay focused on each other

Avoid the temptation to answer the phone, turn on the game, or text at the dinner table. In the study, children reported better control of their asthma when their families stayed focused on the meal and on each other rather than focusing on other distractions. Family and Holiday meals provide a great opportunity to check in with our loved ones with health conditions such as allergies or food sensitivities to offer support, see how they are feeling and assist in preventing exposure to allergens. When viewed this way, the idea that family meals might help to improve allergies and asthma starts to make sense.

2. Keep the conversations positive

Children with asthma were more likely to take their medicine, have fewer asthma symptoms, and report higher quality of life when conversations at the dinner table were positive versus critical or negative. Focus your time together on sincere interest in each other, sharing family stories, joking around, and enjoying each other’s company – this is not the time to be critical. Particularly for families who rarely see each other. The importance of building positive family memories cannot be emphasized enough.

3. Don’t worry about making the meal fancy or long

The average family meal in the study lasted about 18 minutes. What this means is that family meals can be casual and short while still providing great benefits to the family. For the Holiday meal, allowing the children to exit the dinner table and move outside or to another room for family games extends the comradery and can serve as relief from the stressful worry about food allergies and what can and can’t be consumed. Preparing alternative snacks so that hunger doesn’t become an issue is one way to avoid the Hangries.

4. Plan for the long term

If you have someone in your family with asthma or food allergies, consider including the family meal as part of the allergy plan. Keep the records of the type and amount of medication your child takes for their allergy this year and compare the 2022 Holiday season to the 2023 Holiday season. You may see some interesting results. Beyond the health improvement, you should also see improvement in your relationships, new family traditions and memories made that will last for years and years.

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Kellie Huff, December 20, 2022

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