What is an Elimination Diet? – Who is it for? Who is not for?

Are you tired of not feeling like yourself?

Do you have headaches, nausea or discomfort?

IBS? Migraines?

What about stubborn weight that just won’t come off?

Food sensitivities may be to blame.

If that sounds like it could be you, read on...

What are Food Sensitivities?

Unlike food allergies, food sensitivities are not life threatening. But they can make your life miserable.

Food sensitivities occur when your body views the foods you eat as invaders and sends the immune system after them. 

You can be eating the "healthiest" foods in the world but if, for whatever reason, your body views these foods as invaders they can spell trouble. 

Food sensitivities can lead to inflammation in the gut and body which can lead to a worsening of symptoms like:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Migraines
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    Chronic fatigue
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    IBS flare-ups
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  • Acne
  • Weight gain
  • Arthritis
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    Brain fog or the inability to pay attention
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    Leaky gut
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    And more

They may not be life threatening, but they sure can have a huge (negative) impact on your life.

Getting rid of the foods that cause inflammation can lead to a dramatic reduction of symptoms.

But, getting rid of these foods is often easier said than done. Pinpointing the foods that trigger inflammation in our bodies is not always easy.

Our food supply has over 10,000 different foods, additives and chemicals. We eat hundreds of different foods and chemicals every day.

That’s a lot of possible triggers for inflammation.

How do you identify the few (or many) that trigger a reaction in your body?

That’s where the elimination diet comes in.

Eliminate the usual suspects or things you suspect could be bothering you.Make your gut squeaky clean and reduce the inflammation by only eating safe foods.

Then, gradually reintroduce foods to see how your body reacts.

Simple, right?

In theory, yes. But again, we eat hundreds of different foods and chemicals each day.

Sometimes food sensitivities are dose dependent. If you eat under your personal threshold you’ll be fine, but eat above it and it’ll trigger a reaction.

Understanding the nuances and the "why" behind an elimination diet can help you to truly be successful with one.

What is an Elimination Diet?

So, what is an elimination diet, really?

A diet aimed at identifying food sensitivities.

A diet to help heal the gut and quiet inflammation.

A learning diet.

A temporary diet- a tool to help you identify your personal food triggers.

You’ll start by eliminating common triggers, foods you crave (your “comfort foods”) and anything you suspect may be a trigger (need help getting started? Read this).

Over the course of the elimination diet you’ll heal the inflammation already in the gut and then learn whether or not certain foods trigger or worsen symptoms.

You’ll learn which foods to avoid, and which foods are safe.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to eliminate many of the foods that trigger symptoms early on. After approximately 2 weeks you should be feeling significantly better. If not, you may need to head back to the drawing board to see if you can identify other foods that may be causing problems.

Once the inflammation has quieted (you’ll know because you’ll be feeling better), you can start adding foods back in, or “challenging” foods. Because your gut is squeaky clean any inflammation that occurs as the result of a challenge will be fairly obvious.

The goal of the elimination diet is to identify foods that bother you and then expand your diet until you are eating as normally as possible to avoid nutrient deficiencies and overly restrictive eating.

What an Elimination Diet is not:​​​​

A way to identify food allergies- that should be done with your doctor. If you suspect an allergy seek medical care.

This is not a weight loss diet (although often times when inflammation is quieted water weight the the body has been holding onto is shed).

It’s not a long term diet, it’s way too restricted to keep up long term without serious deficiencies.

It may be restrictive for a while, but remember, the goal is always to return to eating as many foods as possible to avoid nutrient deficiencies. (If you’ve identified some food triggers, then by all means, keep those out of your diet to prevent a return of symptoms, but don’t restrict foods unnecessarily).

The bottom line: The ultimate goal is to identify foods that trigger inflammation (food sensitivities) and symptoms and avoid them, while expanding your diet as much as possible. An elimination diet is a brief, fairly intense temporary period, usually around 6-8 weeks, not a long term diet. 

Please note elimination diets do have their limitations. You may have an educated guess about the foods that may be bothering you but sometimes food you never suspect can be triggering reactions.

It can be frustrating to go through the 6-8 week process only to have find a food you never suspected may be to blame.  

It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. It can be easy to mis-identify a coffee sensitivity with a caffeine sensitivity. You may suspect a caffeine sensitivity but in reality the coffee itself is bothering you- and other caffeine containing foods like tea and chocolate are still fine for you to eat.

The 4 Steps to an Elimination Diet:

Step One: Planning.

The first stage is the planning stage and deciding which foods you'll eliminate.

Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Do the Mediator Release Test (MRT) to receive a list of foods that do and do not trigger inflammation in your body.
  • Keep a food diary for a week or two leading up to planning step. See if you can find any connections between foods you are eating and symptoms you’re noticing.
  • Choose from a list of common food sensitivities that are often identified as trigger foods.
  • Note foods you crave or your comfort foods (those can often be foods that trigger inflammation)
  • Identify foods you suspect you may be sensitive to (give you gas, cause bloating, headaches etc), etc.

Whichever method or combination of methods you choose, write a list of the foods you will avoid and move on to step two.

Step Two: Eliminating Foods. 

The second step is taking all that planning and putting into action by actually eliminating the foods on your list from your diet. 

Set yourself up for success by planning ahead: Do the grocery shopping and plenty of cooking and meal prep ahead of time so you’ll have a variety of meal and snack options. When you have plenty of “safe” foods to eat, you’ll be able to resist the temptation to munch on a forbidden food.

For the next 2-4 weeks eliminate all the foods on your list.

Read labels and be sure to avoid these ingredients in any form. Often times a whole food diet low in processed foods is the easiest way to avoid eating anything unintentionally.

After 2-4 weeks the inflammation should have quieted down substantially.

How will you know?

You’ll be feeling better.

Keep in mind you may actually feel worse for a few days before you start feeling better- this is fairly common and should only last a day or two.

Once your symptoms have improved it’s time to move on to step three.

Step Three: Adding Foods Back. 

You're feeling better (yay!), but you can't stay on your limited diet forever- remember an elimination diet is not a long term diet, it can lead to deficiencies. So, start adding foods back in.

The way you add foods back in is crucial- the key is to move slowly and introduce only one food at a time, judge how your body reacts and wait a few days before introducing another new food.

This will give your body time to react if it’s going to.

It will also give you time to observe any symptoms you notice returning.

The most important tool you have at your disposal during step three is your food diary.

Keep track of what you eat, how much, brand name, and time eaten.

Keep track of what you drink- what it is, how much and when you drank it.

Keep track of any medications you take.

Note any symptoms you feel, the time you feel them and note their intensity on a scale of 1-10.

Keep track of daily events- things like stress can also impact how your body tolerates foods.

This will help you identify any correlations between foods you add in and any symptoms you may notice.

What kind of symptoms are you looking for?

Symptoms of food sensitivities include: bloating, GI issues, IBS flare-ups, rashes, joint pain, fibromyalgia, headaches/migraine, or return of other symptoms you had prior to going on the elimination diet.

If you don’t notice a return of symptoms with the introduction of a new food, remove it from your list.

If you do notice a return of symptoms, stop eating the food and keep it on your list (challenge again in 3-6 months).

After you’ve tried all the foods on your list and determined which foods are safe and which are causing a problem, move on to step four. 

Step Four: A Long Term Solution

Creating a long term diet solution and way to live with your food sensitivities on a daily basis requires planning. 

Coming up with a long term diet that works for you is key- remember, an elimination diet is not a long term diet

Once you’ve discovered which foods you have sensitivities to keep them out of your diet to prevent a return of symptoms.

Work with a dietitian to make sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs while avoiding trigger foods.

More Considerations:

If this sounds like something you want to and can do and you’re considering an elimination diet, here’s what else you need to know:

Do NOT to self diagnose: head to the doctor to make sure you don’t have celiac disease, colon cancer or irritable bowel disease. While IBS and other GI problems are awful and a pain in the arse, they do not have the long term, sometimes life threatening problems these have. So, rule those out first.

Elimination diets are not for everyone. Don’t do an elimination diet if:

  • You’re not ready to commit.  Elimination diets are a lot of work. You must keep scrupulous records and read every last label. You will be preparing a lot of food from scratch. You must also be ready to commit to 6 weeks- no breaks for office parties, birthdays or travel, so pick a time that will work for you.
  • If you have a history of disordered eating, these diets can be excessively restrictive.
  • If you suspect gluten is a problem and you have not been tested for celiac disease.

If you suspect gluten is a problem, talk to your doctor about the appropriate test to determine if you have celiac disease. For the test to be accurate, it needs to be done while you are still eating gluten. If you take the test after you have cut gluten out you may receive a false negative.

However, once you have had the testing done by all means try the elimination diet. Even if you don’t have celiac disease gluten or wheat can still cause food sensitivities and trigger reactions in the body. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity or even a wheat sensitivity could be making you uncomfortable. Rule out celiac first.

Elimination diets can be incredibly beneficial and helpful when identifying food sensitivities, especially when done well and with the help of a dietitian.

Curious how I can help? Shoot me an email and we'll chat!


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