The Dirt on Eating Dirt: What Parents Should Know About Food Allergies by @DrHeatherND


Kids get the sniffles, stomachaches, and minor rashes all the time. It sometimes can seem like they are starting a new illness just as the previous one is ending. The seemingly constant cycle of illness has many parents running to their doctor demanding allergy tests, convinced this barrage of running noses, ear infections and itchy skin is the result of food allergies.

The answer is a definite maybe.

The Understanding the Clean Food, No Dirt Debate

Today, parents are overly concerned about cleanliness – clean food and even cleaner fingers. In general, parents no longer allow kids to play in (and eat) dirt and give them antibiotics at every cough or sniffle. The problem is that kids’ immune systems can only get stronger when exposed to and forced to fight off bacteria and viruses.

There is no doubt that by depriving their immune systems of this opportunity we are not allowing their immune system to optimally develop, but could the recent epidemic of food sensitivities and allergies be the result of the fact that we, as a society, have kept our kids super clean?

Again, the answer is a definite maybe. If it’s not the underlying cause, it’s a contributing factor.

The Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities

The most common difference between food sensitivity and food allergy is whether the immune system is involved. With a food sensitivity, the digestive system is solely responding, unable to properly digest or breakdown a certain food. A food allergy will occur when a certain food triggers an immune reaction. Symptoms can be mild to severe and need to be addressed with the family doctor.

Food Allergy: A true food allergy will cause an immediate immune response in the body. Antibodies will be produced in response to what the body thinks is a harmful food. When the food is eaten for a second time, the immune system will remember this food, and release antibodies and histamine to try to fight off the harmful food. Histamine is what causes the symptoms in the body. Symptoms will include; tingling in the mouth, difficulty breathing, inflamed lips, tongue and mouth.

Food Sensitivity: Most children who have food sensitivities are able to eat even small amounts of the suspected harmful food and have no reactions. Although at times of stress or when the child has eaten too much of this food, reactions may occur. These would include; stomach cramping and bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, headache and foggy thinking.

Using a Food Elimination Diet Before Testing for Food Allergies

If there is any reason or indication that your child may have a food allergy, it is important to seek medical advice immediately. That said, before doing expensive (and unpleasant) allergy testing, try a food elimination diet. Most often parents have an idea of which food is causing the problem so start there. Eliminate that food or food group for 30 days and then on day 31, have a food party and eat all that you can of that food for that day.

For the next 72 hours, observe how your child feels physically and emotionally. Symptoms can be anything from stomachaches to headaches to joint pain to sleepiness. The symptoms may indicate an allergy or sensitivity. Once you have identified the culprit, it’s a good idea to eliminate it from your child’s diet for an extended period of time and work on strengthening the digestive system.

The Role of the Digestive System in the Development of the Immune System

Approximately seventy percent of the immune system is located in the digestive system. This indicates good reasoning to put an emphasis on allowing our children to get a little dirty to strengthen the immune system (more opportunity for it to do some fighting and remembering bacteria and viruses) and to optimally fuel our children by incorporating a whole colourful and nutritious food diet.

Below is a list of tips that will help strengthen the digestive system:

  • Squeeze half of lemon in warm water and drink 15 minutes before each meal. The lemon will prepare the digestive system by stimulating the digestive juices. Adding a few leaves of mint will offer some added taste and nutrition.
  • Chew you foods thoroughly. Allowing your teeth to do its’ job fully will mean less extra work for the other parts of the digestive system. Mentally count to 10 while chewing to get a good idea on the amount of time needed to optimally chew foods.
  • Most importantly, enjoy your food! Take the time to have a special meal with your family. When meals are consumed in happy surrounding, the digestive system will be able to focus entirely on digesting and absorbing all the vital nutrients the foods are providing.

Visit Dr. Heather, ND and Human Body Detectives series for kids, to learn more about Dr. Heather and her mission to have families be more proactive and healthy in their lives. You can also join the conversation on Twitter @drheathernd and HBD on Facebook.


About Author

Dr. Heather Manley (from Toronto presently living in Hawaii), who in 2001 received her medical degree from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, is a practicing physician whose primary interest is preventative healthcare for families. She is the author of Human Body Detectives, her educational series of story-telling audiobooks and accompanying activity workbooks. She also promotes wellness and naturopathic healthcare on her website She lives on the Big Island of Hawaii with her husband and two daughters, and is currently at work on the next Human Body Detectives adventure.

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