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Fruits, nuts may keep children's hay fever at bay, study says

COPENHAGEN -- Children who eat lots of grapes, oranges, and tomatoes are less likely to have hay fever, researchers found, suggesting that a Mediterranean diet may have health benefits for youngsters as well as adults.

Children who ate an average Mediterranean diet were 30 percent less likely to have runny noses and itchy eyes than those who didn't, while children who ate a high level of those foods were 66 percent less likely, the researchers said in a study of Greek youngsters published in the journal Thorax.

"The startling thing about Crete is that these kids ought to have as much asthma and allergy symptoms," Paul Cullinan, a doctor at the UK National Heart and Lung Institute and one of the study's authors, said in a telephone interview. "There's something different about their lifestyle, and one obvious thing is what they eat."

Studies have suggested a Mediterranean diet containing high amounts of fruits and vegetables, small portions of nuts, little red meat, and fish on a regular basis may help prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and some cancers. Spanish researchers last month published a study showing that a diet rich in olive oil, which is used in Mediterranean cooking, prevents body fat from centralizing and increasing insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

In the Crete study, 690 schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 18 years participated. Parents answered questions about their children's eating habits and respiratory and allergy conditions, and the children were tested for 10 common causes of allergies, including grass and olive blossoms.

About 30 percent of children have allergies and about half of those would exhibit symptoms, Cullinan said. In Crete, about the same percent of children have allergies, yet almost none exhibit allergic rhinitis and asthma. "It's almost unheard of," he said.

At the same time, more than 90 percent of the children ate oranges, grapes, apples, and fresh tomatoes every week, and about 50 percent ate them every day, the study found. They also frequently ate nuts. The fruit and nuts are high in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, which may help protect cells from being damaged by unstable molecules.