What to Eat When You Have Eczema

Dietary Recommendations for Better Management

Eczema, or atopic dermatitis (AD), is an inflammatory condition that results in dry, itchy patches of skin. For some people, eczema flare-ups can be triggered by allergens (substances that cause an immune response) in certain foods.

An eczema diet is a type of eating plan that aims to eliminate food allergens and fight inflammation in the body. The theory is that an eczema diet may reduce the frequency and severity of eczema flares.

This article discusses the benefits of an eczema diet. It includes foods and supplements that may help you prevent eczema flares, along with cooking tips for making the most of your eating plan.

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Foods That Trigger Eczema

Between 20% and 80% of people with eczema have some kind of food allergy.

When a person with eczema eats something they are allergic to, it prompts an immune reaction that causes inflammation. This response can trigger or worsen an eczema flare.

Some of the most common food allergens that are known to have this effect include:

  • Dairy products
  • Peanuts
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Seafood
  • Shellfish

In a survey of 169 people with eczema, 24.8% reported that dairy foods triggered their eczema. Other common food triggers were gluten (18.3%), alcohol (17.1%), sugar (16.5%), tomatoes (13%), citrus (10%), and eggs (7.1%).

For some people, particularly infants and young children, an eczema flare caused by food allergens can cause hives and intense itching.

When the cause of this reaction is unknown, food allergy tests and elimination diets can be done to find and avoid the allergen before it triggers more flares.

Food Allergy Tests

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Food Allergy Expert Panel suggests food allergy testing for children 5 years of age and under who have moderate to severe eczema and one or both of the following:

  • Symptoms that do not get better with topical treatment
  • A history of allergic reactions immediately after ingesting a specific food

Food allergy tests check to see if a child is sensitive to cow's milk, eggs, wheat, soy, and peanut. If a food allergen is discovered, it can be eliminated from their diet. This can relieve eczema, but the amount of relief varies from person to person.

Much of the time, children with food allergies can grow out of them, but it's a good idea to work with an allergist to develop a plan of action.

Elimination Diets

Elimination diets work by gradually cutting out foods you suspect may be causing symptoms. If you find that a food isn't causing symptoms, you can add it back to your diet and eliminate something else.

Your goal is to find a link between a food in your diet and your eczema symptoms. Try to stick to your usual diet during this time, only eliminating one suspicious food at a time. Using a food diary to keep track of what you eat and your symptoms can be especially helpful.

Keep in mind that eczema symptoms can begin anywhere from a few hours to two days after eating a food allergen. For this reason, you should eliminate a single food for at least three days at a time.

Before you begin an elimination diet, talk to your doctor about how long the diet should last and what foods you should eliminate. It's important to make sure you're still getting enough nutrition during the process.

Planning Your Eczema Diet

An eczema diet does not consist of any particular food groups, and no single diet plan is known to be a cure. The purpose of an eczema diet is to replace foods that cause irritation with foods that fight inflammation and reduce eczema symptoms.

Some studies show that certain food groups are more likely to relieve eczema than others. In one study, people with eczema were asked which foods, drinks, or supplements improved their eczema symptoms most. They said:

  • Drinking more water
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables
  • Switching to organic foods
  • Taking fish oil or omega-3 fatty acid supplements
  • Taking vitamin D, vitamin C, probiotic, or zinc supplements
  • Cooking with primrose oil, olive oil, cod liver oil, hempseed oil, or coconut oil

All of these items are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. On the other hand, there are a number of foods that are known to cause inflammation, including:

  • Refined flour
  • Gluten
  • Trans fat and saturated fat, which are common in junk food and fast food
  • Milk and cheese
  • Red meat
  • Tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes

Recap

As you design your eczema diet, try to eliminate any personal food allergens you have, and cut back or avoid foods that are known to cause inflammation.

Diet Duration

Your eczema diet plan can last as long as you want or need it to. Depending on the severity of your eczema, you may choose to keep your diet going for the long term.

When you're just beginning, you may need to experiment to figure out what foods help you feel your best. Many people find it helpful to organize recipes they like into a set schedule.

Your food and symptom journal will come in handy as you find your rhythm. Use it to write down favorite recipes, log your symptoms, and discover a meal plan that works. Any time you have questions or concerns, write those down, too.

Bring your journal along when you visit your doctor or a registered dietitian. There, you can get an opinion on your grocery list, meals, and symptoms, and discuss what is or isn't working.

This is a great opportunity to tweak your diet plan and bring you closer to your desired results. Working with a dietitian is especially important when designing an eczema diet for a child. This will make sure the child gets the nutrients they need.

Foods to Eat

When making your grocery list, include foods that reduce inflammation. These foods can boost your immunity and potentially improve your symptoms.

Certain foods are known for being anti-inflammatory, but keep in mind that your diet will be unique to you. It will include nutritious foods you like, and exclude foods that trigger your eczema symptoms.

Eating more whole foods and fewer processed foods is a healthy way to eat regardless of whether you have eczema. Whole foods are those that are minimally processed and closest to how you would find them in nature. Look for non-starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Omega-3s are a healthy type of fat that your body needs but does not produce on its own. This nutrient is rich with anti-inflammatory properties, and you can find it in several sources, particularly:

  • Fish: salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines
  • Nuts and seeds: flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts
  • Plant oils: flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil
  • Fish oil supplements: fish oil, krill oil, and cod liver oil
  • Vegetarian supplement: algal oil, which is made from algae
Foods to Consider
  • Fresh or frozen fruit: like strawberries, blueberries, and oranges

  • Fresh or frozen vegetables: like broccoli, spinach, kale, and cauliflower

  • Fresh or dried herbs: like basil, parsley, oregano, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, and coriander

  • Unsalted nuts and seeds: like walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seed, hemp seed, almonds, and cashews

  • Fatty fish: like salmon, tuna, and sardines

  • Foods rich in vitamin D: like mushrooms, organic milk and yogurt, egg yolks, and fortified whole-grain cereals

  • Whole grains: like breads, oats, and healthy cereals

  • Probiotics: like yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods

Foods to Avoid
  • Any personal food allergens: like cow's milk, soy, egg, peanut, tree nuts, shellfish

  • Fast food: like greasy burgers and anything fried

  • Frozen pre-made meals: like frozen pizza, fries, and chicken tenders

  • Packaged foods: like microwave popcorn and flavored granola bars

  • Sugary foods: like soft drinks, sweets, and sugary cereals

  • Snack foods: like chips and cookies

  • Refined grains: like white flour and pasta

  • Gluten: like bread, crackers, cereals, beer, pasta, baked foods

Probiotics

The strength of your immune system largely depends on the health of your gut. In fact, 70% to 80% of the cells that make up your immune system are located in the lining of your gastrointestinal tract.

So it follows that, by improving your gut health, you may be able to give your immune system the boost it needs to fight inflammation caused by food allergens.

A healthy gut contains a balance of "good" and "bad" bacteria. If you have more bad bacteria than good, you can develop gastrointestinal symptoms, like bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn. These are all signs of an unhealthy gut.

One way to keep your gut bacteria balanced is to take probiotic supplements or consume probiotic foods and beverages. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that promote healthy digestive function. They are sometimes called "friendly bacteria" because they are safe and healthy to consume.

Probiotics are also safe for infants and pregnant or lactating women.

One study found that infants who took probiotics during their first year of life were less likely to develop eczema later on.Another study found that giving a pregnant or lactating mother probiotics that contain strains of Bifidobacterium can reduce the risk of her child developing eczema.

With that said, the National Eczema Association states that more studies are needed to determine which kinds of probiotics are most helpful, and the best way to use them.

If you are interested in trying probiotic supplements, discuss them with your physician. Different strains of probiotics can have different effects on your body, and the type and amount needed varies from person to person.

Dietary Supplements

In addition to probiotics, several other supplements have been studied as possible remedies for eczema.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is known as the "sunshine vitamin." That's because your body produces it naturally when you are in the sun. Your body needs it to absorb calcium, making it necessary for protecting your skin and bones.

Getting enough vitamin D is also essential for keeping your immune system strong.

Several studies have shown that taking vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplements can improve eczema symptoms by strengthening immune function and reducing inflammation.

Note that vitamin D3 comes from animals and vitamin D2 comes from plants. Your body uses both types of vitamin D the same way. However, vitamin D3 has been found to be more effective in boosting your body's vitamin D stores and improving symptoms of eczema.

Whether you have eczema or not, the amount of vitamin D you need depends on your age. It is possible to take too much, so you should talk to your doctor before starting vitamin D supplements.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant, meaning that it protects your cells from toxins and can help reduce inflammation in your body. Taking vitamin E supplements may also keep your immune system from overreacting to food allergens.

When you eat a food allergen, your body produces immunoglobulin E (lgE) antibodies to fight the "invader" off. This immune response leads to inflammation and is believed to play a role in triggering eczema flares.

Studies show that vitamin E reduces the level of immunoglobulin E (lgE) antibodies in people with eczema, which may help to reduce eczema flares and provide relief.

While this is promising, more studies are needed to determine the best way to use vitamin E to treat eczema. If you are interested in trying vitamin E supplements, talk to your doctor first to determine the right dose for you.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids to maintain healthy skin. Research suggests that people who don't get enough may be more likely to develop eczema.

As mentioned before, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in food sources like certain types of fatty fish and nuts. But you can also add this essential fatty acid to your diet with fish oil or omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils may reduce inflammation in your body and relieve eczema symptoms. One study found that people with eczema saw major improvements in their symptoms after taking fish oil supplements for 12 weeks.

Some types of omega-3 fatty acid supplements, particularly fish oils, contain high levels of vitamin A. Excessive vitamin A can be toxic, so you should talk to your doctor before getting started.

You should also consult with your doctor if you are taking blood thinners, as fish oils may not be right for you.

Recap

Foods and supplements that fight inflammation may relieve your eczema symptoms. But before you begin any supplements, you should always discuss it with your physician.

Cooking Tips

Treating your eczema can be overwhelming at times. You may have to change some things up when starting an eczema diet plan, but you deserve to enjoy the process.

Instead of jumping in with complicated recipes, focus on finding out which foods improve your symptoms and taste great to you. Recipes made with whole foods are both healthy and require few steps to reach your plate.

Remember, the less processed a food is, the more nutrients it has to offer.

General Nutrition

USDA MyPlate recommends a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy. They also recommend limiting saturated fats, trans fats, sugars, and sodium.

If you are eliminating one of these food groups due to an allergy or sensitivity, consider having your diet evaluated by a registered dietitian. This will ensure that you are still getting all the nutrients you need.

A dietitian can help you find a substitute for any nutrient that is missing from your diet. This is especially important when planning a diet for a child, as their developing bodies need certain amounts of vitamins and minerals.

When foods are processed, packaged, and pumped with added ingredients like flavors and preservatives, they lose much of their nutritious value. Remember, the closer a food is to its natural state, the more rich with vitamins and minerals it will be.

Sustainability

Between the allergy tests and the elimination diets, it can take a lot of work and stress to find out what food is triggering your eczema.

Once you have discovered your triggers, you will have to make a diet plan that is balanced and nutritious, cost-effective, and sustainable for the long term.

A diet that is too complicated or more restrictive than necessary can be difficult to keep up. If you find yourself feeling tired or burnt out, consider seeing a dietitian. Their job is to help you find ways to stick to your diet goals.

Flexibility

In terms of whole foods, you have a lot of flexibility. There are a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and whole grains to choose from—so long as you avoid your food triggers.

For some people, it may be harder to avoid those food allergens when eating out or taking your meals on-the-go.

If ever you are unsure about a meal you would like to order, don't hesitate to ask about the ingredients or speak with the restaurant's manager. Your food allergy requests should be taken very seriously.

Cost

Eating a whole-foods diet can be expensive, but you can save money by buying foods that are in-season and grown locally. One way to find them is by visiting your local farmer's market. You can also save money by purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables.

On the other hand, supplements can be pricey. But you may be able to save money by buying your supply in bulk.

Summary

If you suspect that something you are eating is triggering your eczema symptoms, food allergy tests or an elimination diet may help you find the cause.

Even if you do not have eczema or food allergies, eating a whole food, nutrient-rich diet is important for your health. By choosing foods that fight inflammation, you may find relief from your eczema symptoms.

Probiotic, omega-3 fatty acid, and vitamin D supplements may also be helpful. Before starting yourself or your child on supplements, discuss it with your physician or pediatrician.

A Word From Verywell

Treating eczema is complex, and there's more to it than reducing itchiness and other physical symptoms. In some cases, eczema can affect your sleep, confidence, and mental health, too. Along with making changes to your diet, be sure to prioritize self-care. Moisturize often, reach out to friends and family, and make time for activities that you find relaxing.

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