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Dietary Fatty Acids May Influence the Development of Childhood Allergic Diseases

By Donald J. Brown, ND

Healthnotes Newswire (June 14, 2001)—Children consuming higher amounts of margarine in their diets may be more likely to develop allergic diseases, such as eczema, asthma, and hay fever, according to a study published in the current issue of the medical journal Allergy.1

Following a survey of dietary habits in 1980, Finnish boys and girls were followed at three- and six-year increments to see if they developed eczema, asthma, or hay fever. The researchers, headed by Dr. Teja Dunder of the University of Oulu, found that children who developed one of these diseases were more likely to consume higher amounts of margarine and lower amounts of butter than were children who remained free of these diseases.

Although consumption of fish did not differ between the two groups of children, blood levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—the two key polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish—were lower in children who developed an allergic disease.

The authors of the study conclude, “The quality of the fat consumed in the diet is important for the development of atopic (allergic) diseases in children.” However, they add that the “possibility of preventing atopic diseases by supplementation or by changing fatty acid composition of the diet of young children remains to be tested in clinical trials.”

Dietary Fats—is Butter Better?

We live in a time of fat phobia, with store shelves stocked to the rafters with low-fat and nonfat foods. Most health-conscious consumers are likely to limit their consumption of saturated fat (as found in butter) and eat more polyunsaturated fats (such as those found in vegetable oils). A quick glance at the results of this study suggests that the opposite may be better for children. However, before parents race out and stock the refrigerator with butter for their children, they should consider that, although the results of this study suggest butter is better metabolized by the body than margarine, they do not suggest that increased butter consumption can prevent or treat eczema, asthma, or hay fever in a child. Although a healthful diet may include some butter, it is best balanced with natural sources of healthy fatty acids, such as fish and vegetable oils, including olive, safflower, and flaxseed oils.

Trans Fatty Acids Remain a Problem

The new study adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests that margarine isn’t good for anyone. While margarine is a source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, these fatty acids are much different than those found in vegetable oils, due to a process known as hydrogenation. Also used to make vegetable shortening, this process alters the structure of the fatty acids so they no longer resemble those found in vegetable oils.

Hydrogenated fatty acids (also called trans fatty acids) actually interfere with the body’s normal metabolism of important essential fatty acids needed to maintain body structures such as cell membranes.2 Moreover, consumption of trans fatty acids also appears to increase the risk of heart disease;3 avoiding margarine altogether is probably the best prescription for children and adults alike. Other sources of trans fatty acids include packaged baked goods, crackers, and chips.

In addition to examining the role that dietary fatty acids may play in the prevention of childhood allergies, future studies must also take a closer look at whether children at risk of atopic diseases are properly metabolizing even the supposedly healthful sources of these fatty acids—a concern that has been raised by some researchers.4

Parents should work closely with their pediatrician and a nutritionist to determine a diet that will optimize their child’s health and potentially decrease the risk of allergic diseases.

References
1. Dunder T, Kuikka L, Turtinen J, et al. Diet, serum fatty acids, and atopic diseases in childhood. Allergy 2001;56:425–8.
2. Nelson GJ. Dietary fat, trans fatty acids, and risk of coronary heart disease. Nutr Rev 1998;56(8):250–2.
3. Longnecker MP. Do trans fatty acids in margarine and other foods increase the risk of coronary heart disease? Epidemiology 1993;4(6):492–5.
4. Horrobin DF, Manku MS. Clinical biochemistry of essential fatty acids. In Horrobin DF ed. Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids: Pathophysiology and Roles in Clinical Medicine. New York: Alan R Liss, 1990, 21–53.

Donald J. Brown, ND, is a naturopathic physician and one of the leading authorities in the United States on evidence-based herbal medicine. He is the founder and director of Natural Products Research Consultants, Inc., and serves on the Advisory Board of the American Botanical Council and the President's Advisory Board of Bastyr University.

This article is provided by Healthnotes for theBetterHealthStore. Copyright © 2001 Healthnotes, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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