Rise in nickel food allergies tied to dietary shift

March 7, 2012

The trend of healthier eating may be the reason more people are developing allergic reactions to nickel, a recent study suggests.

Columbus, Ohio - The trend of healthier eating may be the reason more people are developing allergic reactions to nickel, a recent study suggests.

Whole grains, oatmeal, legumes, nuts and soy - all recommended as part of a healthy, balanced diet - contain trace amounts of nickel. Matthew Zirwas, M.D., a dermatologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, attributes the rise in nickel food allergies to the increased consumption of such foods.

“The reason, we think, is that there has been a shift in dietary habits. As people try to eat healthier, they’re actually eating more nickel,” Dr. Zirwas says in a statement issued by the Wexner Medical Canter. “I’ve seen people who have had these itchy rashes for years. It can be really hard to figure out that the nickel in their diet is the source.”

About 15 percent of people in the United States are sensitive to nickel and will develop contact dermatitis of the skin from costume jewelry, watches, clothing and other items containing nickel. Dr. Zirwas says nickel food allergies are different.

“It’s cumulative,” he says. “If you start eating more nickel, it slowly builds up in your body until you reach a level where your immune system starts to react, and that level is different for everybody.”

Symptoms include an itchy rash that can appear anywhere on the body, but is more common on the palms of the hands and the outside of the elbows. In addition to rashes, Zirwas has also seen patients with fatigue, nausea and joint pain as a result of dietary nickel.

Other foods that are high in nickel content include dark chocolate, canned vegetables and fruits, shellfish, ground meat and some vitamins. Nickel can also be released from stainless steel pots and pans in which acidic foods such as tomatoes, lemons or vinegar are heated.

For people who have puzzling rashes and have had reactions to metal items, Dr. Zirwas suggests they pay attention to their diets. In addition to avoiding foods that are high in nickel, Dr. Zirwas tells patients to take vitamin C with every meal because it will bind to the nickel in the food and prevent absorption.

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