The EAT (Enquiring About Tolerance) Study aimed to find out how to best prevent food allergy in young children.
It aimed to find out whether introducing certain foods early in a child’s diet along with continued breastfeeding could stop infants developing food allergy. The response of mothers throughout England and Wales has been phenomenal and included 1302 participants.
In the United Kingdom (UK) approximately 6% of children will develop food allergies. These can vary in severity, from mild to life-threatening.The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, endorsed by the UK Government, recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months.
The UK Government infant feeding information leaflet for parents advises around 6 months exclusive breastfeeding. It also states that if a mother decides to introduce complementary foods before six months there are some foods that should be avoided as they may cause allergies including: “wheat-based foods and other foods containing gluten (e.g. bread, rusks, some breakfast cereals), eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts (and) seeds.”
There is little evidence that this prevents allergy. Research studies that set out to find out if avoiding early introduction of allergenic foods reduces food allergy show conflicting results. Moreover, there is some emerging evidence that suggests that the early introduction of allergenic foods may actually protect against the development of food allergy, but this has yet to be confirmed.
The theory is that repeated exposure of the immune system at an early age to an allergenic food via the oral route (in other words, eating the food), teaches the body to tolerate the food so it will not cause an allergy when the child grows older.
Since the 1970s allergy has increased significantly in the UK: a study in South Wales showed that asthma rates doubled and eczema rates tripled between 1973 and 1988. Two successive studies from the Isle of Wight undertaken in 1989 and then 1994-1996 suggested that peanut allergy had doubled. These increases have coincided with a two-thirds reduction in early introduction of complementary foods. Therefore, it is possible that later introduction could promote food allergies. So the question is – is early introduction an effective approach or not to prevent food allergy in young children?