You want to experience life as your optimal self every day, right? Who doesn’t? In many cases, it’s unfortunately easier said than done. 45-65% of people suffer from unidentified health issues, and it’s possible that food sensitivities are to blame.1
How often do you stop to think that what you put in your stomach could be impacting the way you feel every single day?
Fatigue. Bad moods. Upset stomach. Skin issues. Trouble sleeping. Achy joints. Daytime fatigue. Cravings. These symptoms could point to something in your diet that just doesn’t sit well with your body.
In addition, if your clothes aren’t fitting quite the way you’d like or if you have trouble doing simple exercises and you’re tired of wracking your brain trying to figure out what’s going to make it all better, perhaps it’s time to consider an elimination diet.
Over half of Americans are overweight or obese. One in three are on track to become obese. Obesity can lead to a slew of health issues—heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer—and that’s just to name a few of the really scary ones.
Alexandra Jamieson, the “craving whisperer” who hails to us from the wildly successful and eye-opening documentary Super Size Me, notes that, “Your body is smart, looking for balance, wants to be healthy, and is telling you what you need in every moment of every day.”2 So why not try listening to what your body’s saying?
What’s Going On in There?
You’re feeling lethargic, your brain is foggier than London in high season, and your skin is breaking out like it’s junior prom night. Is it something you’re eating? If yes, what?
Determining whether a component of your diet is grinding away at your health can be challenging, which is why people conduct elimination diets.
Many people start elimination diets simply because they feel unhealthy. Others because they might have an inkling that there’s something they’re eating that makes them unwell. For some, it’s a way to drop weight, sleep better, banish cravings, or get rid of creaky joints and inflammation.
The purpose of any elimination diet should be to first restore your relationship with food. Think of food as fuel for your body and only put in the high-quality stuff. Secondary to that, an elimination diet is a means for you to notice what associations you have with food and recalibrate if they’re less than ideal for you.
If you’ve ever struggled with emotional eating, an elimination diet could help you break that cycle. Lastly, there’s no reason to continue feeling less than fantastic, especially when the solution could be so simple.
Eliminating what makes you feel badly could make all the difference. Dr. Mark Hyman assures us that “you no longer have to suffer with a brain (and a body) that’s anything less than awake, engaged, present, focused, and refreshed.”3 That’s great news indeed!
We’ve all heard about elimination diets, but where does one begin? It makes sense to eliminate foods in order of the most likely offenders first.
Few things are achieved without a really great strategy in place. So plan ahead to ensure your best go at this.
Ideally, you’ll want to try eliminating different foods for four weeks, maybe even six.
Clear your kitchen of the unhealthy foods that you won’t be eating. If it’s not in the house, you can’t eat it.
There are many wonderful foods that will fill you up, so put them on your list. If at all possible, buy organic, wild, grass-fed, and pastured foods. Choose bright fruits and vegetables; maybe even try some new ones each week. If you have a farmer’s market near you, visit it and stock up on seasonal foods. Be creative and have fun with the process of learning to treat your body well.
Before you begin your elimination diet, take your body measurements (neck, chest, waist, hips, arms, thighs, and calves) and note your weight. Store that data away and don’t measure again until the elimination diet is complete. In addition, this is a great time to begin thinking of how you actually feel on a day-to-day basis.
Start with sleep. How often do you wake up during the night? Are you tired on a regular basis? Do you hit a slump in the afternoon?
Next, examine your gut health. Do you have regular bowel movements? How often? What about stomach cramping? Is bloating normal for you?
After that, consider your joints and tissues. Do you feel achy? Do your knuckles or skin feel tight? How common is it for your joints to make popping sounds?
Look at your skin. Breakouts, rosacea, cystic acne, puffiness?
And of course, your mind. Do you experience brain fog? Notice yourself feeling blah? Is daily moodiness an issue?
Once you’ve gone through the checklist, it’s time to start eliminating.
Elimination Item #1: Gluten
Have you ever considered that the elephant in the room might not be an imaginary pachyderm, and rather it’s… gluten?
As much as 30% of the general population may have some intolerance or sensitivity to gluten without actually having Celiac disease.4
Gluten sensitivity has been on the increase in recent years, partly due to the immune system’s response to proteins put into the body.
The amount of bacteria that resides in the gut is what helps the body determine microbial good guys and bad guys. Overuse of anti-inflammatories and antibiotics can compromise the healthy balance the gut needs and can cause an inflammatory response. Otherwise non-sinister gluten becomes like a comic book villain, wreaking havoc in all sorts of evil ways. Once that balance is off, you could be at risk for gluten sensitivity.
Additionally, hybridized grains like wheat, barley, and rye can appear as threats to your system.5
There are more serious ramifications from eating gluten if you have two specific gluten-centric autoimmune disorders: Celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis. Joint inflammation, bone pain, chronic fatigue, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, brain fog, depression, the skin disorder keratosis pilaris, diarrhea, premenstrual syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and ADHD-like behavior have all been linked to gluten intolerance.6
If you do have issues with gluten, even a trace can make you feel horrible and cause issues. Cut gluten out of your diet completely for four weeks to test it.
Elimination Item #2: Dairy
Lactose intolerance can affect you negatively both internally and externally, all the way out to your skin.
Dr. Robynne Chutkan notes, “The gut is a hollow tube that runs the length of the body, from the mouth to the anus, so think of the digestive tract as the inside of the skin. It’s helpful to think that way. Really, the two are very connected.”7
The two parts of dairy that cause issues for people are the sugars and the protein. If you don’t produce the lactase enzyme that breaks down the sugar (lactose) in milk, you’re ‘lactose intolerant.’
If you do produce the lactase enzyme but still have issues with milk, it could be due to the two proteins found in milk: casein and whey. Casein is similar to gluten, and about 50% of people who are gluten intolerant are also casein intolerant.8
When dairy isn’t your friend, skin issues like rosacea and cystic acne can flare up anytime you have it. In addition, lactose intolerance can hit your digestive system in the form of abdominal pain, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, gas, nausea, or vomiting.9 Decidedly not good times, right? And all because dairy can be inflammatory.
Dairy can also mess with the pH balance in your body, as it creates a more acidic state. And unless you’re consuming organic or raw dairy products, you run the risk of consuming antibiotics and hormones from conventionally-raised cows as well. You could switch to organic goat or sheep products, but if you don’t do well with casein or whey, you might have the same results you did with cow’s milk products.
Try eliminating dairy in all forms for thirty days and then begin adding back yogurt, kefir, paneer, or farmer’s cheese. If you’re able to tolerate those, gradually add in other forms. While you’re completely off dairy, introduce almonds, broccoli, collard greens, enriched nut milks, figs, kale, oranges, spinach, and sesame seeds to get all the calcium you need.
Elimination Item #3: Eggs
Eggs are a potential problem if you suffer from an autoimmune disorder, have a seriously leaky gut, and obviously if you’re allergic to them.
Approximately 2% to 3% of people suffer from an egg allergy. Eggs contain an enzyme called lysozyme that break proteins into shorter-chain amino acids so we can absorb them.
Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, aka The Paleo Mom, tell us, “In healthy individuals, pastured or omega-3 eggs can be an excellent, inexpensive source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, zeaxanthin, choline, selenium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D and the B vitamins. However, in the case of autoimmune disease, individuals are more sensitive and tend to have exaggerated immune and inflammatory responses to foreign proteins in circulation. These individuals are also more likely to form auto-antibodies (antibodies produced against your own body tissue) in response to bacterial proteins that may enter into circulation with lysozyme.”10
In other words, eggs can be bad news if your body can’t process them and sees them as a threat.
Eggs are a good source of protein, so eliminating them could seem tricky; however, the good news is that even if you nix them from your diet for two to four weeks, there are many other places from which to get clean protein. Try almonds, avocado, black beans, broccoli, hemp seed, kale, lentils, nut butters, quinoa, spinach, or sunflower seeds.
Elimination Item #4: Sugar
Go easy on yourself if you experience difficulty when cutting out sugar. It’s a biggie. Refined sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine.
And because of that, sugar isn’t a substance that you can taper off of like you did with caffeine. Are you ready to hear this? You will have to cut the refined sugar out cold.11 Sugar, trans fats, and flour are the most common sources of food-triggered inflammation.12
Sugar is tricky. Brains like the ‘hit’ they get in the pleasure center when sugar is consumed. The more of it you consume, the more your system becomes used to it, and in turn you require greater quantities to get the same hit.13 It’s a vicious cycle.
Sugar can overstimulate you to the point that eating a healthy diet could be unappealing. You might notice the headache again, as well as cravings, queasiness, and tiredness. So stay strong with kicking this one! It could be a few days of relative misery, but it will be worth it once you get past it. It takes a couple of weeks to kick the habit, but once you do it’ll be smooth sailing.
Sugars should only be consumed sparingly, so when you do add it back in, be sure to limit your daily consumption and only eat natural forms such as honey, maple syrup, and fruit. Consider it a treat, not a diet staple.
Elimination Item #5: Caffeine
Caffeine in moderation, or for those who don’t suffer ill effects from it, can be just fine. But studies have shown that excessive caffeine can exacerbate and even heighten feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as lead to insomnia.14
If you’ve been feeling stressed out or blue or have trouble sleeping, try to kick the coffee habit.
Dr. Mark Hyman suggests cutting your daily caffeine intake by half every day over the course of a week until you stop completely. For instance, if you drink four cups per day, cut back to two. Then in the next day or so, cut back to one. After that, cut back to half a cup. This will get you to zero. The first day that you do this could be intense. It’s ok. You’ll get through it.
You might notice that you get a headache. That’s perfectly normal. Caffeine, a psychostimulant, is an addictive substance. When you overuse it regularly, headaches can accompany its exit from your system. That’s why coffee can give you that amped-up feeling and why experiencing a withdrawal symptom like your head hurting is normal.15
This is a fantastic time to up your water intake. Add lemon or cucumber to make it more interesting. Know that it could help you feel full and less dependent on caffeine.
Experiment with green smoothies to jump-start your mornings. Depending on your consumption level, look for the withdrawal from caffeine to last one to three days.
Elimination Item #6: Nightshades
Nightshades aren’t necessarily a common item on the food intolerance list, but for those who have a reaction to them, they can cause digestive problems, abdominal and joint pain, and sometimes muscle tremors.
This is due to the fact that nightshades contain alkaloids, specifically steroid alkaloids, which at higher levels can cause those issues.
Because nightshades are fruits and vegetables that you might think of as being good for you, it could be difficult to imagine them causing you problems.
If you suspect your body doesn’t do well with them, or if you’re still feeling badly after eliminating some of the more common causes of food intolerances, consider removing them from your diet for two to four weeks.
Some food you may recognize from the nightshade family are are bell peppers, cayenne pepper, eggplants, goji berry, peppercorn, paprika, pimentos, some potatoes, tomatillos, and tomatoes. Be aware that many spices that are seed or pepper-derived are also nightshades.
Out With The Old
You may have hit some walls eliminating some old favorites, but since you know this is for your health, let’s keep going! Next, you will be eliminating the rest of what could be plaguing your system.
It’s well known that the major triggers for food sensitivities are part of the Standard American Diet (SAD). The SAD can contribute to overeating, weight gain, and ‘progressive cognitive decline that may begin very early in life.’10
If, after getting rid of the most notorious foods that cause issues for people, you’re still experiencing symptoms, consider cutting out:
- Chips, crackers, cookies, and other baked goods
- Corn, including corn syrup and corn starch
- Soda, energy and sports drinks, juices, or anything that poses as a juice
- Vegetable oil, commercial salad dressings, and commercial condiments like mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup
- All other processed foods (if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, it’s probably best left out of your body)
Be aware that your body is most likely to respond to the foods it sees most frequently, so those might be good to test with a trial elimination.
In With The New
So, what can you have? Plenty! Your shopping list could look something like this:
- Chicken, fish, grass-fed beef, grass-fed bison, turkey, elk, lamb, etc.
- Healthy fats like avocado, olives, or olive and coconut oils
- Raw nuts, seeds, and nut butters (sprouted is best, and check for added sugars in nut butters)
- Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
- Milk alternatives like almond or coconut
Be innovative! Some ideas to get you started:
Make green smoothies to start the day off right and eliminate the caffeine cravings.
Start with water and a couple handfuls of spinach. Blend until juice-like. Add a banana and some frozen pineapple or berries. Blend until creamy.
Try having cold cooked chicken with half an avocado for breakfast. It sounds strange, but fueling your brain and body with healthy protein and healthy fat can knock out cravings and sustain you during the day.
Scatter raw seeds on your lunchtime salad, add a few olives, and dress with olive oil and no-sugar-added balsamic vinegar.
Steam cauliflower and ‘rice’ it in the food processor. Add some onion and garlic cooked in coconut oil. Enjoy with steamed salmon, vegetables, and a glass of sparkling water.
Have fresh berries with a bit of almond butter to make a delicious treat.
Don’t Keep it a Secret
Putting a support system in place anytime you try something new is wise.
Tell people in your life that you’re trying out a different way of eating. You may run into a bit of skepticism or negativity. Don’t worry about it! Focus on the benefits. Instead of saying, “I can’t have that,” turn it into a positive and say, “I choose to eat what will make my body feel good.”
And don’t forget about keeping yourself in the loop! Start a food diary, noting what’s happening in your body each day. But refrain from calorie counting. Begin to listen to your body’s signals. Are you eating out of boredom, stress, or loneliness? Note that in your food log.
Eat only when hungry, and stop when you’re full. Also make a note of what’s going well. Pay attention to your sleep, cravings, moods, how your skin looks, what your digestion feels like, and whether your inflammation has decreased. You could start noticing an improvement in these areas within the first week.
Continue to enjoy social events in your life that involve food. Plan for the win by either eating something healthy ahead of time, or by offering to bring a dish that you know will be good for you.
When eating out, be bold. Ask for extra vegetables. Request that olive oil and balsamic be your salad dressing. Ask your dining partner if they would be okay skipping the bread. Look for steamed fish and broiled chicken options. Remember that you’re choosing to treat your body this way so that you’ll be healthier. This isn’t about deprivation, it’s about your well-being.
What About Maintenance?
Once you’ve successfully completed your elimination diet, you might wonder what to do next
You may have noticed that you actually like the way you feel in your mind and body…and in your skinnies! But you might also want to see if a specific food was causing you some of the previous irritation.
By reintroducing foods slowly back into your diet, you may be able to pinpoint the culprit(s). This is known as the “challenge phase,” and it’s fairly straightforward.
Experts agree that you can add something back into your diet every two to four days. The key is to add only one of the eliminated foods back at a time. That way, you can better understand the effect that it has.
You can start with any food, but let’s use dairy as an example. Have some cheese, milk, or yogurt. You may notice nothing initially, or your system might take a big hit. Grab the handy food dairy and make some notes—bloating, upset stomach, headache, diarrhea, itching, brain fog, or nothing at all?
Give yourself a few days to see if anything unusual develops. If it does, you may need to eliminate that food for at least six months and then try it again. If you continue to feel healthy, then it’s likely that you’re okay to have that particular item in your diet.
If anything continues to plague you, food sensitivity testing may be in order. Now that you’ve completed your elimination diet, maintaining it should be simple. You took charge of your health. Continue to treat yourself with respect and show yourself the self-love that you deserve.