We all know eating the right things can help fuel our bodies—ensuring we’re working at our most optimal levels—but for some who are experiencing tummy issues, rashes or otherwise are feeling down in the dumps, eliminating some things from their plates may help.
“An elimination diet is one way to determine if foods are causing symptoms that you feel may be related to your food consumption,” said William Culver, MD, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist in Loveland, CO. “The symptoms can be related to a food allergy, nonallergic conditions, such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance, or can just be related to you specifically.”
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To learn the ins and outs of an elimination diet, here are five things you should know and tips for getting started.
1. An elimination diet isn’t about losing weight … but there are benefits
An elimination diet is a great way to identify foods you’re allergic or sensitive to, but it’s not a “quick fix” or a long-term solution for weight loss. “While this is a restricted diet during the process, it’s not the end point,” Dr. Culver said.
Elimination diets pretty much do exactly what the name suggests: They exclude certain foods for a period of time—anywhere from three weeks to a few months. By removing certain foods or food groups from your diet for a prescribed amount of time and then reintroducing them one at a time, you can uncover possible connections between certain foods and your undesirable symptoms, such as hives, diarrhea or fatigue.
“The benefit of an elimination diet is to determine if foods reliably and consistently do or don’t trigger suspected symptoms,” Dr. Culver said. “Food should be in one of three lists: tolerated foods, foods creating problems and foods uncertain of creating problems. The goal is to determine which list various foods will appear on.”
Through this diet, you can identify a broad list of foods that your body thrives on. As a result, you may find you feel less bloated or foggy-headed, experience less joint pain and may even have more energy.
2. There are different types of elimination diets
When following an elimination diet, all aspects of your diet are flexible apart from those certain foods you’ve removed. Some elimination diets target specific foods that are common allergens, such as milk, eggs, corn, soy, gluten, peanuts and seafood. While others may also include alcohol, artificial colorings and flavorings, processed sugars and processed meats.
If you’re pretty sure you already know which food or foods cause your problems, you may only eliminate just those food or food categories.
3. There’s a difference between a food allergy and an intolerance or sensitivity
A food allergy happens when your body sees certain foods as invaders, and they work to fight them off, much like our body’s do against infections. Food allergies not only can make you feel ill, they can be life-threatening, causing things like anaphylaxis, swelling of the face or tongue, respiratory difficulties, wheezing and severe GI symptoms.
On the other hand, food intolerances (or sensitivities) occur when the body reacts poorly to specific foods or ingredients. A food intolerance means a specific food irritates your digestive system or triggers undesirable symptoms. Those symptoms can include nausea, vomiting chronic or recurrent diarrhea, bloating, gas, cramps, irritability and headaches.
4. Food reactions can fade away or change
“Foods that create nonallergic type symptoms may change over time or may be dependent upon volume, frequency of consumption or other factors,” Dr. Culver said. “Bottom line, foods that create symptoms should be avoided; foods that don’t cause symptoms can be consumed; and slow introduction of new foods to establish a cause-and-effect relationship is encouraged.”
At some point you may consider reintroducing small amounts of a food that you have been sensitive to in the past to see what you may be able to tolerate.
5. Seek out a trained expert
An elimination diet can be an effective (and even life-changing) method to discover the root cause of your health problems, but it’s a big commitment that may be hard for some. It can often be done on your own, but some experts suggest consulting with a doctor or registered dietitian experienced in allergies and elimination diets for certain circumstances.
Some symptoms, such as persistent diarrhea, severe allergic reactions or migraines, can be a sign of something more serious or unrelated to your diet. Your doctor can run all appropriate tests to get to the bottom of what’s going on. And a dietitian can help you find substitutes for eliminating certain foods to ensure you’re getting all the nutrition your body needs. These specialists can also help you navigate the challenges, temptations and pitfalls that can come with the diet.
Tips for getting started
Starting an elimination diet can be a bit daunting and overwhelming for some. Here are some tips to help you successfully get started:
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- Keep a diary. Keep track of the foods you’re eating and any noticeable symptoms you’re experiencing. Share this information with your doctor or dietitian.
- Be prepared. Stock up on fresh produce, organic and raw foods. Plan out a few meals for the week and consider cooking in larger quantities. Know your snack options, so you don’t go hungry.
- Shop smart. Nowadays there are a wealth of products on the market that are free of many allergens, such as eggs, soy, corn and gluten. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Check out your local health food store, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Sprouts to find allergen-free products that can aid in your diet.
- Pace yourself. When reintroducing food items, take it one food item at a time. Mark your calendar or set reminders for the days you’ll be reintroducing certain foods and make sure they’re spaced out several days to account for any reactions or symptoms.
- Don’t give up. This is where a supportive group of friends and family or a consulting doctor or dietitian can help. It’s a big commitment, but it can result in big rewards.