Have you ever felt like one size fits all nutrition plans don’t work? Well, that’s because they don’t! Optimal nutrition is as individual as your micro-biome or finger print! What some may find beneficial in their diets other’s may not, or could become sick from. Even without food allergies or other serious medical conditions, what you eat can have a tremendous impact on your overall health and well being. Many “health foods” could even be making you sick, gain weight or not feel 100%. Some might even be contributing to chronic illness! While there are some foods we all know we should be avoiding, minimizing or eliminating there are others that are more tricky. This is where elimination diets come in!
*** CONTRAINDICATION / TRIGGER WARNING***
If you actively have or have ever required treatment for an eating disorder, elimination diets may not be safe for you. It is imperative that you seek the opinion of your doctor, a nutritionist and / or an eating disorder specialist before trying an elimination diet. You should also be cautious if anyone in your immediate family has required treatment for an eating disorder (there is new evidence that there may be a genetic predisposition). Please seek professional advice BEFORE continuing to read this post.
What is an Elimination Diet?
An elimination diet is the gold standard in nutrition. It is the best way to reveal exactly what foods may be a problem for you! In order to do an elimination diet you simply eliminate foods you think might not be beneficial to your personal health. This needs to be done over a period of time (usually 4 weeks) and there is a specific reintroduction method. It requires diligence, often times a significant amount of food prep and tracking. This might sound incredibly difficult but there are some ways to simplify it. The payoffs for doing an elimination diet are usually huge and sometimes life altering so it’s well worth the effort!
Why do an Elimination Diet?
Most people choose to do an elimination diet because they aren’t feeling their best or aren’t performing as they’d like. You may also choose to try an elimination diet in order to help manage the symptoms of a chronic disease or because you hope to minimize or eliminate medications.
Feel Your Best
These are some of the symptoms an elimination diet might help you address so you can feel 100% amazing!
- Stomach upset
- Bowel problems (constipation, flatulence, diarrhea)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty focusing
- Brain fog
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Difficulty losing weight
- Menstrual issues
- Hormonal issues
- Joint Aches
- Muscle Weakness
- Sleep difficulty & insomnia
These aren’t the only symptoms that may lead to an elimination diet but as you can see the list is extensive. If you have any of these issues it is best to check with your doctor to make sure that you don’t have an underlying medical condition. But, very frequently people discover that there is no known medical cause for these symptoms. They simply don’t feel their best and want to.
Many people also use elimination diets to develop a nutrition plan that helps them manage their illness or improve their symptoms and quality of life. Most functional medicine doctors believe that proper nutrition can cause remission of disease, alleviate symptoms entirely or allow people to go off of their medications (with doctor supervision).
Some of the chronic illnesses and conditions that can benefit from an elimination diet are…
- Diabetes (type 2)
- Irritable Bowl Syndrome
- Auto-Immune Conditions (ulceritive cholitis, MS, Hashimoto’s, Celiac Disease, etc)
- Some cancers
- Migraine Headaches
- Autism and ADHD
- Bi-Polar, Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Disorder
And there are many more. If you have a chronic illness or condition that doesn’t conflict with an elimination diet you may want to consider trying one. Of course you should check with your doctor before implementing any nutrition or exercise change. Especially if you are already on medication or being treated for a chronic illness.
Types of Elimination Diets
There are many different types of elimination diets. Often people start with a basic one that eliminates the 7 foods most commonly reacted to or detrimental to your health. They are, corn, peanuts, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and sweeteners (including sugar, honey, agave and all artificial sweeteners, yes, stevia too). It takes 10 weeks if you reintroduce all of the foods except sweeteners. It is relatively simple to do at home!
If you find you tolerate all of those foods upon reintroduction you may want to eliminate a different set of foods such as FODMAPS or Nightshades.
The most comprehensive elimination diet I’ve come across is the Paleo AIP (autoimmune protocol). I highly recommend this particular plan to get the most thorough experience, especially if you’re trying to address a chronic disease. There are many books and courses to help you with a Paleo AIP plan including some incredible recipe books you’re sure to use for years to come!
How to do an Elimination Diet
Regardless of the type of elimination diet you choose to do there are some general steps and universal guidelines.
Choose Your Plan
When preparing to do an elimination diet consider which foods you’d like to test. You can do this by making a list of the symptoms you are trying to address and comparing it to likely food culprits. If there are specific foods you think are causing the issues eliminate them for 4 weeks and then follow the reintroduction instructions.
Oftentimes though you just don’t feel as good as you’d like and you really can’t connect it to any specific food. If that’s your situation start with the basic elimination plan. Because it tests the foods people are most sensitive to it is common to find that one of them is a problem and you feel MUCH better when you eliminate it.
You can also plan to go through a series of elimination diets. Simply start with the basic plan then move on to FODMAPS, nightshades etc. You can take breaks between the elimination plans or do them one right after the other.
Determine When You’ll Start
It is very important to carefully choose your start date! You will need to consider the amount of time you will be on the elimination diet to ensure that it will work in your schedule! Most people, for example, don’t want to deal with a plan like this around the holidays or when on vacation! To do this you need to have a basic idea of how an elimination diet works so you know how long it will take.
How it Works
Whichever foods you choose, you completely cut them out for 4 weeks. This means that you don’t eat them at all in any form. Oftentimes some derivative of the foods we are trying to eliminate are used as additives in processed foods. To avoid these sneaky ingredients you should plan to prep and cook all of your own food and avoid eating out.
Remember that you will also have a reintroduction period. Typically, the number of foods you eliminate is equal to the number of weeks you will reintroduce. This means that if you remove 6 foods from your diet you will need 4 weeks for elimination and 6 weeks for reintroduction which is a total of 10 weeks. The only exception to this is if you eliminate a food you don’t plan to reintroduce like sugar and sweeteners. This is why with the basic plan you eliminate 7 foods but only reintroduce for 6 weeks making it a 10 week plan.
Be sure to consider the full duration of time you will need to complete both elimination and reintroduction when scheduling your elimination diet.
Be sure to eliminate high temptation foods from your house before you start your plan. During the first week you are very likely to have intense food cravings. The more you can eliminate processed and junk food from your house before beginning, the easier it will be for you to stick to your plan.
Eating out on an elimination diet can be tricky! If you choose to eat out or travel, be prepared with Restaurant & Travel Eating Tips!
Make an elimination diet meal plan. Don’t wait until you’re on the plan to decide what to eat. Look up recipes ahead of time. If you google paleo AIP recipes you’ll find an abundance of options that will fit most elimination diets. The Whole 30 is also often compliant. Once you have your recipes chosen and meal plan put together make a basic weekly shopping list for each of the 4 elimination weeks. I suggest doing this on the computer in a word doc so you can add staples or paper products to it when you’re actually getting ready to shop. Having a plan will make it much easier to stick with your elimination diet!
Select a day for meal prep and stick to it. It is imperative that you are always prepared. Things happen, we all get busy or distracted. Having meals or ingredients prepped and ready is the difference between success and failure. You can even prep weeks or months in advance by making and freezing meals. Soups, casseroles and veggies freeze particularly well.
To make it a bit easier here are a few additional tips…
Get Your Family On Board
It is difficult to stick to an elimination diet and remove the temptation from your house if your family isn’t doing it too. Consider getting them on board, at least at home! If your husband or school aged kids don’t want to follow the plan while at work or school that’s ok. It is much easier though if non-compliant snacks are kept in lockers or desk drawers at work rather than in your pantry. And because of the sheer amount of food prep cooking different dinners isn’t practical. It won’t hurt for everyone in the house to be eating the healthy dinners you’re making for yourself!
Recipe Ease and Ingredients
Don’t get over ambitious when it comes to the foods you’ll be preparing. You won’t want to get overwhelmed! Try to select recipes with similar, easy to find ingredients. You should also consider cook time. Some recipes have cook times that would only apply to seasoned chefs with mad knife skills. Be sure to read the instructions and consider your skill level. This isn’t the time to try complicated, unfamiliar cooking methods!
Eat the same or similar things repeatedly. This is especially helpful for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Preparing large batches and individually portioning them saves time and money. It also simplifies everything because you don’t have to wonder what you should or want to eat. You can do this for dinner as well unless you think you’re family will object. Listening to them complain will likely challenge your commitment. If you’d like to batch cook for dinner it might be better to freeze part of your batch so there’s a longer gap between eating it.
Smoothies are a life saver when you’re on an elimination diet. Especially the basic plan. Without eggs or gluten breakfast is a tremendous challenge but smoothies with collagen powder or vegan protein powder are a great option! If you’re ever in a jam you can always throw together a smoothie as a snack or meal replacement!
Things you may need…
Elimination diets and healthy nutrition plans save you serious cash in the long run. They help you to avoid chronic serious medical conditions and live a more happy, healthy and productive life. Invest in this plan if you need to! If you don’t have decent knives, buy a set or a couple (chef & paring). Get a knife sharpener and cutting glove while you’re at it! I find a mandoline and mini chopper to be particularly helpful for food prep as well! And you may also want to invest in a high quality blender or food processor!
Things you won’t need…
You should also consider tucking a few things away at least for the duration of your elimination diet. You won’t be using any wood utensils or cutting boards. Any porous kitchen tools could be contaminated with the foods you’re trying to eliminate. It is likely that you also won’t be needing your toaster or any other appliance food goes directly on or into for the same reason. It’s better to put these items away some where so you don’t automatically use them!
Be sure to keep a food log! It will be very helpful to write down everything you eat and drink! Eating times will also be beneficial. Make sure that you are keeping track of how you’re feeling as well! It can be very helpful and motivational to know that you felt more clear minded and energetic on day 7 than you ever have. Or that you’re sleeping more soundly and waking easily! No only should you track your food and symptoms but you should also track your weight (this is the ONLY time I recommend weight tracking). Weighing yourself on day 4 or 5 and every week after will be very helpful.
Tracking all of these factors is even more important during reintroduction. Anytime you reintroduce a food you might react to it. That reaction could occur that day or several days after. You might even find that you gain a few pounds when you’re exposed to certain foods. That would indicate a reaction so that’s why weight is an important factor.
Ending Your Elimination Diet
There are two ways to end your elimination diet. One is by breaking it and the other through controlled food reintroduction.
Breaking Your Elimination Diet
An elimination diet is one of few things that needs to be done perfectly for it to be effective. You MUST go 28 days with NO exposure to the food you’re eliminating. If you consume it, even in a very small amount, you’ve broken your diet. Should this happen you have to start all over again. This is why it’s SO important to be mindful and prepared.
Around week three you should start working on your reintroduction plan. There will likely be a food you’ve really missed at this point and you might want to start with that one.
Each week you will introduce one new food for three days in a row and then eliminate it for the next four. You should introduce that food in it’s purest or most common form and in the way you are most likely to eat it. For example, if you eliminate soy then on day one of reintroduction you would eat edamame (it’s purest form). Then day two and three introduce the types of soy you usually eat like tofu or soy milk. But, make sure you avoid introducing a food that has other eliminated ingredients such as soy sauce (which contains gluten as well).
Do NOT reintroduce more than one food at a time. The four days in between introducing new foods you will be back to 100% elimination. Even if you felt fine when you reintroduced that food you can’t keep it in your diet while reintroducing others.
When Not to Reintroduce
If you’ve eliminated a food that you have a known allergy or reaction to or a medical condition prohibiting then do NOT reintroduce it! An elimination diet will not cure your peanut allergy or celiac disease! I know that might sound strange but plenty of people eat foods they know they react to.
You also don’t need to reintroduce sugar, sweeteners or artificial sweeteners. These things should remain eliminated or at least minimized in your diet. So, no reason to reintroduce them. It will take some extra caution to avoid them as ingredients in other foods which is especially important during reintroduction.
Additional Things To Know
Alcohol, Caffeine and Nicotine
Alcohol is strictly forbidden on all elimination diets. It needs to be completely avoided. This includes non-alcoholic beer and kombucha. It will be difficult to discern reactions to food vs. alcohol. Also alcohol is high in sugar and most elimination diets require that sugar be eliminated.
Caffeine and nicotine are not generally forbidden but best avoided. The symptoms of using these substances could skew your results. If you are consuming either, consider cutting back and be sure to track them. Hopefully you’ll be able to see where they are creating reactions.
If you consume any of these substances regularly and eliminate them when you start your plan, be sure to note that. You may experience withdrawal symptoms from this. By the end of the first week you should feel much better!
Supplements & Vitamins
It is usually best to stop using any supplements or vitamins a few weeks prior to starting your elimination diet. Unfortunately they often aren’t well tested and they may have ingredients that skew your results. If you currently see a homeopathic doctor or naturalpath who has recommended the supplements and vitamins you are taking discuss your elimination diet with them. They can specifically advise you regarding this. If you have chosen your own supplements and vitamins it’s best to stop using them for the duration. Don’t add them back until the reintroduction phase is over.
If you use any type of drug regularly you should go through detox before trying an elimination diet. Even the use of marijuana can effect the results. If you aren’t using it for medical reasons it’s best to quit a month before starting the elimination diet. If you are using it medicinally refer to the next paragraph.
Many people take prescription medications. If this is you, don’t go off of your meds! Make sure that you write down what you are taking and when. And adhere to any dietary restrictions you already have. If you start to notice any increase in medication side effects be sure to notify your doctor or pharmacist immediately. This is unlikely but can happen.
Evaluating Your Results
Once you’ve completed the reintroduction phase of the elimination died you’ll need to know what it all means. Review your journal. If you wrote down any symptoms that were less than optimal the same week you reintroduced a food you are likely sensitive to it. You should continue to eliminate that category of food from your diet or at least minimize it depending on how severe the symptoms were.
If you didn’t feel you had any reaction to any of the foods you reintroduced and didn’t notice any change for the duration of the elimination diet but you still don’t feel well, try a different elimination plan. It is likely that there is something in your environment causing the issue and it is probably food. You may not have found the culprit during your first round. It can be helpful to review your food and symptom log. Check to see if you commonly had the undesirable symptom after eating a specific food (or category of food). Try to eliminate that next time.
Make sure that you keep your elimination diet journal. Many health professionals recommend them and will be very interested in seeing your results. Your journal may also help you down the road should you develop other food sensitivities!
What to Expect
When you do an elimination diet there are a few things you can expect. Initially it will feel very difficult. For the first week you may feel very sluggish and tired. You might have trouble concentrating or sleeping and you may have headaches. Don’t be surprised or discouraged by this. You are likely experiencing withdrawals. It should pass. If you are still feeling nasty at the beginning of week 2 you may want to see your doctor. This shouldn’t happen and your symptoms may be unrelated to the elimination diet.
After the first week you are likely to feel better than ever! Be sure to take a lot of notes! This will help encourage you to continue and it will be helpful later should you need to do another elimination diet. Enjoy your newfound energy, health and happiness. At this point you’ve probably lost weight too so make sure you are documenting that as well!
When you get into reintroduction you may find that some foods make you very sick. Because the food has been eliminated for so long your body has lost it’s ability to adapt to it. Reactions to reintroduction are usually stronger than they were when you were eating that food regularly. Be sure to keep excellent notes throughout this process. If you introduce a food an have a reaction you shouldn’t continue with the three days of reintroduction. You should make a note that you are sensitive to that food and not eat it again.
After you’ve completed your elimination diet you can expect to have some answers about what might’ve been ailing you. You can also expect to feel a lot better and as long as you don’t reintroduce foods you react to you’ll continue to feel great and keep most of the weight off!
Find Your Optimal Plan
You don’t have to tolerate not feeling your very best! But, you may have to take matters into your own hands! Often times an elimination diet is the best way to ideal health! Once you’ve completed your elimination diet(s) you’ll have found your optimal nutrition plan! As Hippocrates (the father of medicine said) “let food be they medicine and medicine be thy food”. The first step in a healthy life is eating the optimal nutrition plan for your body! So, what are you waiting for… start planning your elimination diet today!
Be prepared, sometimes travel & eating out can’t be avoided so be sure to get your Restaurant & Travel Eating Tips along with exclusive access to the entire UA Members Only Library!
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