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More PsychNotes: Policies and Issues in Mental Healthcare

January 20, 2016       

When Health Policies Run Amok and Good Parenting Causes Problems: Peanut Allergies
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

squirrel with peanut
You may have heard that peanut allergies in children are on the rise. The U.S. and the U.K. developed health policies to protect children from this life-threatening allergy. Good parents followed the public health policies recommending the avoidance of peanuts in the first years of life. But peanut allergies continued to increase at alarming rates--doubling in the last 10 years in Western countries.

Everything from chemical toxins to caesarean sections to vaccinations and genetically modified foods were blamed for the increase. The more public health tried to eliminate the problem by advocating avoidance of peanuts in the early years of life, the more it increased.

Finally, we have some answers that many people with common sense had already reached!

Researchers followed infants until age five who were at risk for developing peanut allergies due to risk-increasing conditions of severe eczema or egg allergies. The study examined children who were already sensitized to peanuts and those who were not. When these at-risk children ate a reasonable amount of peanuts in their early years of life, they had a 70% (already sensitized group) to 86% (not already sensitized group) reduction in peanut allergies (Du Toit, et al., 2015). In other words, the public health recommendations to reduce peanut consumption was the cause of the increase in peanut allergies!

This illustrates the problem with extreme thinking. The public health policies to eliminate peanuts from childrens' diets come from the over-protective notion that if something causes problems for some people, it should be controlled. People tend to think if something is good, then more of it is better, and if something is bad, we should eliminate it. They don't consider other possible repercussions. It is like playing chess and only thinking of the current move rather than several moves ahead—you are likely to lose.

Most extremes are problematic. In cognitive therapy, we teach balance. “Everything in moderation, including moderation (Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900).” Overprotecting children leads to other problems. The peanut allergy is a concrete example, but children who are overprotected are less likely to learn self-reliance, effective decision-making, and self-protection. Their parents may successfully protect them in childhood but they are often unprepared for adulthood.

Du Toit, G., Roberts, G., Sayre, P.H., Bahnson, H.T., Radulovic, S., Santos, A.F., Brough, H.A., Phippard, D., Basting, M., Feeney, M., Turcanu, V., Sever, M.L., Lorenzo, M.G., Plaut, M., and Lack, G. (2015). Randomized Trial of Peanut Consumption in Infants at Risk for Peanut Allergy. New England Journal of Medicine, 372, 804-813.

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