Reversing years of medical advice, a new study says babies at risk of developing peanut allergy should actually be fed peanuts. (Traditionally, parents have been told to keep peanut products far away from such youngsters.)
According to the new data, eating peanut products in the first 11 months of life significantly reduces the risk of developing the allergy — by as much as 86 percent in high-risk infants. The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
About 400,000 school-aged children in the United States suffer from peanut allergy, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Even the slightest exposure can prove fatal. The allergy generally develops early in life, and sufferers rarely grow out of it. "The prevalence of peanut allergy among children in Western countries has doubled in the past 10 years, and peanut allergy is becoming apparent in Africa and Asia," the researchers write in the new study, which the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases calls "without precedent."
In a clinical trial, 640 babies between the ages of 4 and 11 months who were determined to be at risk of developing a peanut allergy (because they already had either severe eczema or an egg allergy, or both, and tested positive on a skin-prick test) were either given peanut-based products or avoided them. Half the babies ate foods containing peanut three or more times a week, and the other half didn't eat peanuts until they were 5 years old.
Fewer than 1 percent of the children who ate peanuts regularly had become allergic by the end of the study, while 17.3 percent in the avoidance group had developed the allergy.
“Deliberate avoidance of peanut in the first year of life is consequently brought into question as a strategy to prevent allergy,” the team writes in the study. "Our findings showed that early, sustained consumption of peanut products was associated with a substantial and significant decrease in the development of peanut allergy in high-risk infants."
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However, Dr. Gideon Lack, head of the research team, says that the study excluded infants who had already showed early strong signs of developed peanut allergy. He also warned that "Parents of infants and young children with eczema or egg allergy should consult with an allergist, pediatrician or their general practitioner prior to feeding them peanut products."
In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised potentially allergic children to stay away from peanut products, but later retracted their recommendations in 2008, stating insufficient evidence for early food avoidance.
The latest study backs up other recent research that showed that eating nuts while pregnant reduces the incidence of nut allergies in children. Between 1997 and 2010, the prevalence of peanut allergies tripled, to 1.4 percent of U.S. children, according to a 2014 study published in JAMA Pediatrics. Coincidentally, that was right around the time when doctors began telling pregnant women to stop eating nuts.