If you recently have been prescribed or decided on your own to embark on an elimination diet, you might feel daunted with having to abandon so many foods at once. Is this diet really worth it? What will I learn from the diet? How will I ever eat? How can I do this for so long? These questions may be racing through your thoughts as you contemplate what it means to eliminate various foods from your daily regimen. An elimination diet can be a powerful tool to unravel the mysteries of underlying problems with allergies, sensitivities, and autoimmune conditions- a whole range of conditions. It’s certainly worth committing to, and sticking with this sort of diet, so let’s take a closer look at what is involved.
To start with, what is meant by an elimination diet? An elimination diet is usually recommended as a way to get to the root of which foods may be giving your body problems. Those problems can be myriad, as which foods we eat can cause all sorts of reactions in the body. You may have a noticeable reaction that affects your gut in the form of discomfort, irregular bowel movements, heartburn, bloating, or other digestive symptoms. You might have a skin condition such as a rash, rough skin, psoriasis, or eczema. You might have more general symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, irritability, or general malaise. You might not have specific symptoms that you have ascribed to any particular condition but instead may have had the indication of allergy or sensitivity come back from a food sensitivity test. These things may have motivated you to start questioning whether the foods you eat may be contributing to these problems, or may have motivated your practitioner to suggest a deeper dive into examining the foods you consume and how they affect your overall health. An elimination diet helps answer these questions by going back to basics- stripping away the quantity of foods that are suspected to cause problems, and keeping only those that one has a good reason to expect to be safe. After staying with these basic foods only for a time, you and your practitioner can see if there is any improvement in particular symptoms or if there is any increase in general well-being. If there is, then more foods are gradually added back in until the offending foods are spotted. If there is not any improvement, more foods may be stripped out of the diet to give a more basic starting point for analysis or to change the set of basic foods. More foods are added to the diet (or taken out permanently if there is a reaction) as time goes on. In this way, a list of foods will be generated to avoid in the future, and hopefully, you will start to feel better! For some people, the results of an elimination diet can be life-changing!
How many foods are eliminated from the diet to start with depends on why the diet is started in the first place. In some cases, it may be suspected that you are reacting to one particular food and may take just that food- or type of food- out of your diet. It’s important to know that some foods are cross-reactive and others may be composed of a variety of ingredients that require more foods to be eliminated. For instance, if you suspect you are reacting to tomatoes, it may be necessary to temporarily eliminate all members of the nightshade family (of which tomatoes are a member), such as eggplant, potatoes, and peppers. It might be that you feel off the day after having a couple of beers the night before. This could be because of the acetyl aldehydes as you break down the alcohol, yeast used to ferment the beer, the gluten in the barley, or the barley itself. All would be eliminated and reintroduced one by one. Even if you’ve had a food sensitivity test, there may be cross-reactive foods that have not been tested. Your practitioner can help you sort out which other foods to add to the diet. On the other hand, if you’ve tested positive to a range of foods or have multiple or severe symptoms, you might have to eliminate a large range of foods to begin with and be on the diet for a longer period of time. Some eliminations might seem easier than others- if you have to eliminate all legumes and you eat them only occasionally, the diet might seem easy. If you must eliminate a range of foods, or gluten, or something you consume all of the time, like coffee, it might seem impossible.
It’s not impossible! How can you manage it? To start with, focus on why you are embracing the diet in the first place. Imagine eliminating your debilitating gut pain, or having to rush to the toilet when visiting friends. Imagine having a clear head again after suffering from brain fog for so long, or having more vigor and energy. Imagine your skin clearing up, your eyes less puffy, and your joints less achy. Whatever motivated you or your practitioner to have you embark on this diet, remember that it will be worth it! Many of us have changes in which foods can be easily tolerated as we age. Your aches and pains and discomforts aren’t necessarily just the pains of aging, but you are not keeping up with your changing body. You may not always have had a sensitivity to gluten or dairy, but you may have developed one. Discover these changes and embrace them- learn to like new foods that make YOU feel better. Knowledge is empowerment!
Secondly, realize that everything being eliminated is probably not being eliminated for good. Most of these eliminations will probably not be permanent- in a relatively short time, many or most of the foods that have been eliminated will be returned to your diet- particularly if there are multiple foods that are temporarily gone. Before you know it, many of those foods will be back- but this time you’ll have more confidence that they are not the culprits in your discomfort. For those foods that are eliminated, or to help you in the process of discovering which are problematic, there are substitutes- often these are easier than ever to find and sometimes very appealing. For instance, most supermarkets have a range of gluten-free flours, gluten-free breads and baked goods, and even “GF” symbols right on the shelf next to the price, making it easier than ever to find gluten-free products. Restaurants are more responsive than ever to food sensitivities, many will ask when you order, and many will have substitutions available. Even some fast food places make it easier to order when on an elimination diet- there are salads, grilled instead of fried, and even gluten-free buns at Chick-Fil A! If you give up dairy, there are various nut milks, if you give up gluten, there are gluten-free options like rice and corn and legumes that can easily be substituted in tortillas, pasta, and bread. There are other carbs like potatoes. If you eliminate members of the lily family like onions and garlic, it still may be possible to use herb flavoring blends, or even oil infused with those flavors rather than using the whole products since some of the compounds that may irritate aren’t oil soluble. There are a wealth of choices that can help you succeed. The eventual payoff is worth it! Even if you initially fail, keep trying and stick with it! Eventually, as you heal your gut lining and calm down your immune system’s reaction to certain foods, You may be able to reintroduce them in the future- but don’t make that less likely by not trying now! Look at it as a mystery that must be investigated- eventually, you’ll find the culprit and be healthier and happier for it. Your body changes over time, help it change in a way that still lets you feel good. You might even find some new favorite foods!