By Laurie Ross

More than 6 million children in the United States have asthma – almost one in 12. Rates are higher for African American and Latino children, and higher for those living in urban, low-income areas. It’s a complex disease, complicated by allergies, air pollution, smoking, high cost of medicines, access to healthcare – and, according to a recent study, access to healthy foods.

The study, presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology annual meeting in November 2016, revealed that children living in a “food desert” – an area where lack of nearby supermarkets limits access to affordable or high-quality fresh food – were 53 percent more likely to have asthma than those who live closer to markets.

The concept of food deserts is not new, and many studies are investigating their relationship to health disparities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk and other food that make up a full and healthy diet.

What do fresh food, fruits and vegetables have to do with asthma?

A nutritious, well-rounded diet helps develop a healthy immune system, and asthma is primarily an immune system disease. Healthy eating is especially important for children with still-developing lungs and airways.

Also, healthy food helps reduce overall inflammation, the underlying cause of asthma symptoms.

In the search for asthma prevention and treatment options, research points to specific foods and diets that may be related:

• For expectant mothers without food allergy, including milk, peanuts and wheat in the diet during pregnancy may reduce their baby’s risk of developing asthma, food allergies and allergic rhinitis.

• Expectant mothers who consumed foods high in vitamin D during pregnancy reduced their child’s risk of allergic rhinitis – but findings were seen only with food, not vitamin supplements.

• A high-fiber diet, consisting of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, can boost the immune system.

• A Mediterranean diet – high in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables – has been linked to better asthma control.

• Maintaining a healthy weight is also important as obesity is linked to poor asthma control.

Another factor in the food desert is that people with limited access to supermarkets may depend on convenience stores and fast-food outlets for their meals – which may not contain the same nutrients that fresh food does, further affecting immune system diseases like asthma and allergies.

Reviewed by Neil MacIntyre, MD and Eileen Censullo, RRT, AE-C