It’s an issue that confuses many pregnant women. If I eat peanuts, will my baby end up with a severe nut allergy? Should I avoid nuts altogether, or is a little munch here and there okay?
If you’re pregnant and have been avoiding nut products because you’re concerned about passing on a life-threatening peanut allergy to your unborn baby, here’s some scientific advice you might want to consider: Grab a piece of toast and smear a hearty blob of smooth peanut butter (or crunchy, if that’s your thing) all over it and take a massive, guilt-free bite. Because the general consensus no longer supports avoiding peanuts during pregnancy.
The advice that researchers, scientists and health professionals are giving pregnant women is this: Avoiding nuts and nut products while pregnant and breastfeeding is unlikely to prevent allergies in your children (unless, of course, you’re allergic yourself or have a family history of allergies).
So, where did pregnancy peanut paranoia come from, and why do so many people still believe that prenatal nut consumption leads to severe nut allergies in babies?
Pregnancy peanut paranoia
We’re all aware that peanut allergies have been on the rise for the past couple of decades. It’s unfathomable that peanut butter — once a staple lunchtime sandwich or snack for many of us — is now banned in schools around Australia.
The scientific community seems to have no conclusive explanation for the global rise in nut allergies, yet there are a few common hypotheses: We’re too obsessed with cleanliness and antibacterial wipes, and there are too many additives and GMOs in our diets. Chemical exposure, caesareans and lack of breastfeeding have also been touted as possible allergy-causing culprits — as has abstaining from certain foods. Enter peanut avoidance.
A couple of decades ago, scientists speculated that avoiding peanuts may help to prevent allergy, because early exposure to peanut protein in the womb could sensitise infants.
In 1998, the U.K. government suggested that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their infants should avoid peanuts. However, a report published almost 10 years later looking at the impact of this advice found no clear evidence that peanut avoidance during pregnancy and breastfeeding had any effect on the prevalence of allergy in children. It also found that peanut allergies were rising faster than they ever had in the past.
Check out these foods to avoid during pregnancy >>
For and against
If you’ve been following the science since the peanut avoidance hypothesis was introduced, it’s easy to see why the arena is a confusing one.
In 2010, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York told us that babies of mums who ate peanuts during pregnancy had an increased risk of peanut allergy.
Then, in 2013, we were told that peanut consumption during pregnancy actually lowers the risk of childhood allergy, with the effect being strongest in mums who ate the most nuts. The Boston-based researchers concluded that eating nuts may actually be protective.
Studies have linked both avoidance and consumption to allergies. Yet, when you look at the balance of available evidence, there’s definitely more weight to the suggestion that consumption has no effect on infant allergies.
So, for now, the best advice, as summed up late last year by Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, seems to be this: “Pregnant women should not eliminate nuts from their diet, as peanuts are a good source of protein and also provide folic acid, which could potentially prevent both neural tube defects and nut sensitization.”