5 Things You Need to Know About Food Allergies and Cystic Fibrosis

1. Cystic Fibrosis and Failure to Thrive

One of the first indicators that a child might have cystic fibrosis (CF) is a clinical picture called failure to thrive (FTT). FTT is a blanket term used when a child’s growth falls far behind others their age. More specific markers include weight for age, height for age, and weight for height. Kids with CF often present with FTT due to the nutrient malabsorption associated with the disease. That doesn’t mean a small child necessarily has CF. Though if they fall far below the curve on their growth chart, it is something their physician may try to rule out.

2. The Food Allergy Connection

The suboptimal body size of CF patients is often due to this malabsorption, but in some cases there are other factors at play. One consideration may be food allergies, especially if a child hasn’t responded positively to conventional treatment. Italian researchers looked at a small group of children whose FTT persisted, despite treatment with pancreatic enzymes and nutrition supplements. They found the 90% of subjects tested positive for food allergies. In order for CF patients and their families to best manage their disease, it’s important that they’re aware of the potential for food allergies.

3. Celiac Disease

When patients were diagnosed with both CF and celiac disease, it used to be chalked up to just a “casual association”. As these two conditions began to co-exist more frequently, though, a positive relationship between them became apparent. According to a 2003 review article in International Pediatrics, patients with cystic fibrosis are five times more likely to develop celiac disease than the rest of the population. So what is celiac disease? It’s actually an allergy to the protein component of wheat, called gluten. A patient with both of these conditions is at extremely high risk of FTT. It’s important to work with a registered dietitian who specializes in CF or celiac disease to optimize nutrition status.

4. Cow’s Milk and Cystic Fibrosis

Cow’s milk is tough to swallow for many—whether due to a true milk protein allergy or more common lactose intolerance. That’s true amongst CF patients, as well as the within the general population. Ingesting cow’s milk without adequate amounts of the digestive enzyme lactase can lead to inflammation of the small intestine. This inflammation, called enteropathy, can be seen through tissue biopsy. CF patients who present with enteropathy often show marked improvement when cow’s milk is eliminated from their diet.

5. The Truth About Fat

Are CF patients allergic to fat? You might think so, considering that consuming too much can lead similar symptoms. The abdominal pain and diarrhea is actually due to malabsorption and not a true allergy. The main contributor to this is a condition called pancreatic insufficiency. In CF, the pancreas is often unable to optimally digest and utilize certain food components. Taking supplements containing digestive enzymes normally present in the pancreas helps for many patients.