An elimination diet is a great tool to have in your toolbox if you're wondering if something you're eating is affecting the way you feel - from feeling bloated to foggy thinking and everything in between. Food is powerful and impacts literally every single one of our bodies' processes. But sometimes we can't breakdown or digest certain types of food.
This is where an elimination diet comes in.
What is an Elimination Diet?
Unlike allergies, which trigger an immune response and can be life-threatening, food intolerances or sensitivities are caused by the inability to breakdown or digest a certain type of food.
When a food can't breakdown, it's usually caused by a lack of a particular enzyme. Take lactose intolerance, for example. When someone with lactose intolerance drinks a glass of milk, they'll likely experience stomach pain, bloating or gas. This is because their body doesn't produce enough of the digestive enzyme, lactase, needed to breakdown the lactose (milk sugar) that's in the glass of milk.
When milk is eliminated from the diet, the problem goes away. If milk is re-introduced to the diet, symptoms come back.
This is essentially the process a person will go through when doing an elimination diet - but with different foods.
People can be intolerant or sensitive to any type of food, but the biggest offenders include: dairy, eggs, soy, corn, gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, nightshades, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, legumes and refined vegetable oils.
I elaborate more on these foods and how to eliminate them later in the post, but first I want to get into why someone would be motivated to do an elimination diet in the first place.
Food Sensitivities and Intolerances
Food sensitivities or intolerances can arise at any point in our life. You can be born with a food sensitivity or you can develop a sensitivity as you age.
Many food sensitivities develop from a lack of the necessary digestive enzymes available to breakdown foods. Think of digestive enzymes as the key that unlocks the nutrients held up in a food. If we're missing certain enzymes, not only do they have a problem breaking foods down, but foods' nutrients can't make it to their destination.
In addition to foods' nutrients not getting to where they need to go, undigested food can linger in the digestive tract longer, increasing bad bacteria, which can throw off our immune system even more.
You've probably pieced together that enzymes are one of the most important unsung heroes of our livelihood. But if a food doesn't have the appropriate enzyme to help it do its job, it's just as important to eliminate that food altogether - making room for other foods that can be tolerated.
People with food sensitivities experience a wide range of symptoms. A few of the most common include:
- bloating or excessive gas
- abdominal pain
- unusual fatigue
- foggy thinking
It's not unusual to develop a headache or feel bloated every now and then, but if you're constantly dealing with these types of symptoms, the foods you're eating could be responsible.
Even if you've eaten a certain food your entire life, it's possible to develop a sensitivity to it. Age can affect the abundance of enzymes available to breakdown food. Of course, age isn't always a factor as many children are sensitive to foods as well.
How to Do An Elimination Diet
Elimination diets aren't like a typical diet. The purpose is not weight loss, rather to feel better in some way, shape or form.
Elimination diets work by cutting out all of the biggest food offenders for about 21 days. After 21 days, each of the foods that were eliminated are re-introduced one and at time.
This elimination diet is broken out into two phases - simply called "Phase 1" and "Phase 2". Phase 1 are the list common foods that trigger sensitivities. Phase 2, is another group of foods that can create the same measure of intolerances. They're broken out into two phases to make the elimination of so many foods more doable.
Step-by-step, here is how you do it:
Elimination Diet: Phase 1
Step 1: Eliminate the following foods entirely from your diet for 21 days
I go through each of the foods below in more detail in case you're wondering what foods contain gluten or soy, for example.
Step 2: Re-introduce the foods one at a time
This is a really important step that a lot of people are too impatient to do the right way. Add one food back into your diet at time for four days.
A sample reintroduction of Phase 1 looks something like this:
- Days 1 - 4: eat eggs
- Days 5 - 8: eat eggs, gluten
- Days 9 - 12: eat eggs, gluten, dairy
- Days 13 - 16: eat eggs, gluten, dairy, corn
- Days 17 - 20: eat eggs, gluten, dairy, corn, soy
- Days 21 - 24: eat eggs, gluten, dairy, corn, soy, peanuts
If or when you notice a trigger food - or a food that causes the symptoms that motivated you to do an elimination diet in the first place - stop eating it. Don't continue eating it and move on to the next food after the symptoms you're experiencing are completely gone.
If you ate eggs, but noticed that you were bloated a few hours after you eat them, stop eating them entirely. Then allow your body to recover from what just impacted it. This may take a couple days.
After you're feeling good again, re-introduce the next food. Follow this process until all foods have been re-introduced.
Here is a downloadable chart for Phase 1 you can use to track any symptoms after eating these foods.
If you're feeling like you've resolved your issues with Phase 1 of the elimination diet, great. If you're still experiencing symptoms, you can move on to Phase 2, below, following the same pattern as above - just applied to these foods.
Elimination Diet: Phase 2
Step 1: Eliminate the following foods entirely from your diet for 21 days
- refined vegetable oils (corn, canola, soybean)
- artificial sweeteners
- tree nuts
- nightshade vegetables
Step 2: Re-introduce the foods one at a time
A sample reintroduction of Phase 2 looks something like this:
- Days 1 - 4: eat refined vegetable oils
- Days 5 - 8: eat artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils
- Days 9 - 12: eat artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils, tree nuts
- Days 13 - 16: eat artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils, tree nuts, nightshade vegetables
- Days 17 - 20: eat artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils, tree nuts, nightshade vegetables, legumes
- Days 21 - 24: eat artificial sweeteners, refined vegetable oils, tree nuts, nightshade vegetables, legumes, alcohol
Here is a downloadable chart for Phase 2 you can use to track any symptoms after eating these foods.
Tips for a Successful Elimination Diet
Elimination diets can be challenging in a few different ways:
- They require cutting out foods that you might like or eat often, sometimes creating a test of will power.
- You might not notice results right away, especially if the trigger food you need to avoid isn't eliminated until the end of the schedule. Patience is required.
- They're tricky. When you cut out eggs, for example, you have to cut out all eggs, including food products that contain eggs. This means label-reading is a must!
Here are a few tips to help make the elimination diet as successful as possible!
Eat Whole Foods
The easiest way to avoid some of the most common culprits you're trying to eliminate is to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Whole foods are single ingredient foods, like fruit, vegetables, eggs, chicken breast, rice or butter, for example. While eating this way might be a little boring for the few weeks you're doing the elimination diet, it ensures that you won't be mixing inadvertently adding foods you're trying to eliminate.
Know the Foods
Gluten: I wrote a pretty lengthy post about gluten recently and encourage you to read it if you want to cut gluten out of your diet for the long haul. But if you're trying to cut gluten out for the elimination diet, it's important to understand that gluten is found in many grains, including wheat, rye, barley, farro and spelt, to name a few. It's a good idea to avoid all pastas and breads on the elimination diet - unless it's specifically labeled as gluten, soy and dairy free.
Soy: Soy is in so many processed foods, especially as an oil. Read labels and look for any type of soy that might be in a food you're about to eat. Try to minimize commercial salad dressings as soybean oil is commonly added.
Corn: Who knew that avoiding corn would mean more than just avoiding corn chips and piles of yellow kernels? Corn is in just as many processed foods as soy. If you buy anything with the following ingredients, you're eating corn: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, corn or vegetable starch, sorbitol.
Refined Vegetable Oil: This group of oils includes corn, canola and soybean oil. They're hugely oxidative and have a tendency to trigger inflammation. If you eat processed foods, it's highly likely you're eating these oils on a regular basis. One of the best things you can do for your health is to cut these types of vegetable oils out entirely.
Keep in mind, olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil are all great fats to incorporate in an elimination diet.
Artificial Sweeteners: These sneaky sweeteners are in a lot of foods you'd never suspect. Read labels and look for ingredients called aspartame, Sucralose, Neotame and acesulfame-K. While it's not an artificial sweetener, stevia can also be found in a lot of foods. More and more people are sensitive to stevia these days as it's become more refined. If you want to know more about artificial sweeteners and where you can find them, read this article.
Nightshades: Nightshades are a group of vegetables that some people are more sensitive to, especially people with gout. These vegetables include tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, tomatillos and hot peppers, to name a few. Generally speaking, these are the most common and should be avoided.
If you are going to eat processed foods or any food that is not a single ingredient, read the labels to make sure that everything you're trying to avoid isn't in what you're eating.
Ingredients like soy, artificial sweeteners or refined vegetable oils are often in processed foods - from kid products to adults.
Even very small amounts of an ingredient can make a big impact, so don't assume that just because a little bit of something is in a food means you won't be impacted.
Make a Plan
It's infinitely easier if you can go into an elimination diet knowing what you're going to eat. If you're constantly going out to eat, you'll need to make sure that the menu can accommodate your needs.
To help make things a little easier for phase 1, I've put together a sample elimination diet for you to follow when you first get going. As the phase moves on, it will become easier as you're adding in more foods.
I focus on Phase 1 in the post because it's generally more difficult to remove all of these very common ingredients - at least initially. It gets much easier as you become more familiar with what you should or should not be eating.
I'm especially to families with children. I did an elimination diet with my oldest child when she was seven. It was actually much more restrictive that what I've laid out here - and we stuck with it for three solid months. It worked! But it also meant that the rest of us in our family ended up cutting out the same foods - purely because I didn't want to cook different meals all the time.
Sample 1: Elimination Diet Phase 1
- Gluten free old fashioned oats* + coconut milk (canned) + frozen berries + a little maple syrup
- Clean & Green Smoothie
- Mixed greens salad with lots of vegetables, chicken and a vinegar and olive oil dressing
- Any sort of homemade soup without the foods in Phase 1
- Grilled salmon or baked cod with broccoli and rice
- Spaghetti Squash Bolognese
*Oats are naturally gluten free, but because crops are rotated out, sometimes with wheat, the likelihood of cross-contamination with gluten is high. If you have celiac disease, this is important to know. For the sake of the elimination diet, you should try to get gluten free oats. Bob's Red Mill is a brand I love.
This is a lot of information, but hopefully it will give you some guidance to helping you get on the right track of figuring out if any of these foods could be triggering a sensitivity.
Leave a comment if you have a question.