Watching what you eat is important. But what matters more than a number on a scale or your carb count is how you’re feeling – and a big part of feeling your best is avoiding the foods that make you feel bad.
The problem is that it’s not always clear which food is giving you trouble.
Sometimes it’s obvious. Acute symptoms like a rash or difficulty breathing after eating a meal or snack are clear signs of a food allergy. No mystery there.
Other symptoms aren’t as clear. Your digestion might seem “off” and you have no idea what might have triggered it. Or you may have other symptoms that seem completely unrelated to food like brain fog, headaches, fatigue, or joint pain.
In these cases, an elimination diet can reveal surprising connections between foods you’re eating and the unpleasant symptoms you’re experiencing. In this article, we’ll discuss what an elimination diet is and provide you with 10 crucial tips to make sure yours is successful.
What is an Elimination Diet?
Do you feel bloated after eating bread? Maybe you get brain fog or painful cramps after eating sugary foods.
You’re not alone. Experts say up to 25% of adults experience unpleasant symptoms after consuming various foods.1
Restricting your food choices can help you identify foods you are intolerant of or sensitive to. An elimination diet is the temporary, strategic removal of specific foods (or groups of foods) from your diet followed by their reintroduction. Think of an elimination diet as a science experiment in which you are the test subject.
Elimination diets need to be done with precision and care. Simply removing certain foods – or groups of food – for weeks can create nutritional deficiencies during the elimination phase.
While specific protocols may vary from patient to patient, a typical elimination diet at the MaxWell Clinic lasts a minimum of 3 weeks. In general, we recommend avoiding common inflammatory foods known to cause allergies and sensitivities, including:
And because the goal is to identify foods responsible for your symptoms, the reintroduction phase has to be done systematically – one at a time, while monitoring and mitigating possible reactions.
Elimination diets also require hypervigilance when reading restaurant menus and food labels. Without proper guidance and education, you may end up eating the very food you want to avoid because it was listed under a different name.
For these reasons and more, we always recommend doing an elimination diet under medical supervision.
Why Should You Do an Elimination Diet?
Food is powerful.
But it can wield its power in two ways – it can nourish and rejuvenate or it can wreak havoc in your body. In fact, food is frequently the root cause of dis-ease.
A constant fight with allergens stresses the immune system, resulting in inflammation. Chronic inflammation, in turn, can damage your cells and tissues, leading to diseases like cancer.
Chronic inflammation is subtle. You won’t see dramatic, sudden declines in your health. You may even think your symptoms are normal. And that’s precisely why chronic inflammation is worrisome. It sneaks in slowly and often escapes your notice.
An elimination diet helps identify any food contributing to chronic inflammation in your body. It doesn’t mean the food itself is bad – it just happens to be creating an inflammatory response in your body. Once you remove the inflammatory triggers, you may notice improvements in your:
- Mental clarity or brain fog
- Acid reflux (GERD)
- Rashes or acne
- Allergies or cough
- Joint pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Mindset around food
If you’ve done elimination diets in the past and didn’t see results, perhaps it’s time to give it another try.
The truth is, many elimination diets aren’t done properly. You may have unknowingly continued eating the food you were supposed to avoid. You might have reintroduced food too quickly, or the timing might have been all wrong.
So what can you do to ensure a successful elimination diet? Here are our 10 tips to help you survive your elimination diet, and make sure it’s successful.
How to Do a Food Elimination Diet: 10 Tips for Success
1. Have an Open Mind
The words “elimination diet” often trigger a strong reaction in many people. They often say, “I’d rather do [something extreme] than do an elimination diet!” It’s as if they were handed a prison sentence.
An elimination diet is not permanent. It’s also not a punishment.
It gives us valuable information about what might be going on in your body, filling in gaps that can’t be detected by a blood allergy test. It might actually reveal that your symptoms aren’t caused by a particular food. In this case, we can move on to other possible causes, such as leaky gut or a histamine response.
Instead of focusing on “I can’t eat that,” think about the variety of foods you can include in your diet. Think about what you’ll learn about your body and the positive changes you’ll experience. No longer being in pain. Finally getting rid of that annoying cough. No longer hiding your face in photos because you’re embarrassed of your skin.
Just 3 weeks can give you the boost you need to achieve your health goals.
2. Check Your Calendar
Our culture revolves around food, especially during the holidays. Unless your family and friends also undergo an elimination diet at the same time, chances are you won’t enjoy your holiday gatherings while on an elimination diet.
There’s also the possibility of the diet lasting longer than you expected it to. If you have a reaction to a food upon reintroducing it, you need several days to clear it out of your system. Once it’s clear, you can reintroduce another food.
Planning ahead can make or break your success. Think about when you will be the most successful. We recommend planning around holidays, vacations, and any large social events where you might not be able to avoid certain foods.
3. Prepare Yourself
It’s important to understand what you’re getting into. You may want to take some time to try out different foods or ingredients allowed on your elimination diet to see what works best for you. If you’re a patient at MaxWell Clinic, ask your clinician for a copy of our helpful comprehensive guide, which includes a complete list of allowed foods.
4. Clean Out Your Pantry
Remember, an elimination diet is a huge commitment. You can’t be careless about it. You’ve either eliminated the foods you’re supposed to, or you haven’t. There’s no in-between.
Remove any temptations beforehand by cleaning out your pantry and fridge of anything not on our list of approved foods.
5. Learn to Read Labels
To be successful during the elimination phase of the diet, you have to learn to play detective. After all, how can you be sure the foods you’re eating are free of the stuff you’re supposed to avoid?
It comes down to learning how to read food labels. Some of the common allergens are easy to identify, thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 and the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021. The two laws identify 9 major food allergens:
- Tree nuts
You’ll see the words “Contains: __________” at the bottom of the ingredient list.
Manufacturers also have the option of putting the name of the allergen in parentheses after the first time the ingredient with the allergen appears. For example, you may see “whey (milk).”
Identifying other allergens can be trickier. For example, sugar goes by countless other names, many of which you may not even recognize. Molasses? Crystalline fructose? Maltodextrin? They’re all different names for the same thing – sugar.
We know all of this can be overwhelming. That’s why our clinicians, dietician, and patient advocates will teach you exactly what to look out for.
6. Do Your Research
Eating out while on an elimination diet is challenging – though not impossible.
The key to being successful is doing your research. Look at menus beforehand. If the restaurant doesn’t include an ingredient list in their menu, ask to see one whenever possible. If that’s not possible, ask detailed questions. For example, ask if they add sugar in their foods, giving other names for it like honey, agave, etc.
You may have to be okay with being labeled a “picky eater” or holding up the line with your questions. Again, this is just a temporary inconvenience. Tell the restaurant you have an allergy so it’s taken seriously. Otherwise, you might unknowingly sabotage your elimination diet.
Despite all your efforts, some of your favorite restaurants might be impossible on an elimination diet. MaxWell Clinic keeps a list of local restaurants that provide lots of options for those on an elimination diet. Ask your clinician for a copy when you’re ready to try something new.
7. Gather Support
The first week of an elimination diet is the most challenging. It’s even more difficult if you don’t have support from your family and friends.
Here’s the thing: don’t keep your elimination diet a secret.
After all, you’re doing this for your health. They can be there to support you when you’re tempted to eat foods not approved on the diet.
8. Be Mindful of Your Thoughts and Words
Along with adopting an open mind, try to be mindful of your thoughts and words.
In our fast-paced modern society, eating has become a mindless act. Many people are more concerned with just being full, disregarding why they’re eating, what they’re eating, and how their body responds to the food.
When starting an elimination diet, it’s common to ask limiting questions like “What’s in this that I can’t have?” Instead, ask yourself, “What does my body want? What will nourish me?” You may be surprised at what you learn about your body.
9. Listen to Your Body
A part of the beauty of elimination diets is that you learn mindful eating. You learn to make connections between the sensations in your body and what you’re eating.
That said, it’s important for you to communicate what you’re experiencing with your doctor and dietician. The earlier you communicate, the better the outcome. Tell us what’s working for you or what’s hard for you. We may be able to offer workarounds to make your experience easier.
9. Ask for Help
By now, it’s clear elimination diets are challenging.
But elimination diets are more than eating or not eating certain foods. You may learn about your relationship with certain foods. The thought of limiting food might be a trigger for some people, especially those with eating disorders. You may feel like quitting because it’s too hard.
We’re here for you. We want you to be successful. The effort is worth it.
Your MaxWell Clinic clinicians and dietician will work with you and support you from beginning to end. Let’s see what we learn so you can move forward in your healing.
Ready to Reintroduce Food?
You did it! You’re done with the elimination phase. Now it’s time to reintroduce the foods you avoided for the last 3 weeks.
The reintroduction phase can last several weeks, so you have to stay focused. Pay attention to how you feel. A journal can help you monitor your symptoms, bowel habits, sleep, mood, energy, and so on.
We’ll reintroduce foods using a 4-day cycle:
- Day 1: Choose one food to reintroduce and eat 2 to 3 servings of it throughout the day. This gives your body a chance to “see” the food, and the “dose” will be high enough to trigger a reaction.
- Days 2 and 3: Stop eating the reintroduced food from Day 1. Observe and track your symptoms in your journal. Symptoms of food intolerances/sensitivities aren’t always immediate. It can take up to 72 hours for your body to respond to the food.
- Day 4: Note how you feel. If you didn’t have any negative symptoms, then you may incorporate this food back into your diet. If you have symptoms, remove this food from your diet again and wait until the symptoms resolve before reintroducing a different food item.
- Day 5 (or Day 1 of reintroducing the next food): Repeat Days 1 through 4 with a new food item.
The reintroduction phase requires a lot of observation, and it’s easy to get derailed. But being a patient of Maxwell Clinic means you don’t have to go it alone. We’re here to answer your questions and support you every step of the way.
Bumps in the Road of an Elimination Diet
Here are some more quick tips to keep you on track when there are “bumps in the road.”
- Sugar: As we discussed above, sugar is tricky. Learn all the different words for sugar – fructose, sucrose, agave, corn syrup, etc. Approved alternatives include stevia and monk fruit.
- Coffee: Coffee itself is usually not a problem; the mycotoxins found in coffee are. Mycotoxins are toxic chemicals produced by molds that grow on crops with long storage processes, like coffee, grains, and corn. One study found up to 45% of coffee samples contained mycotoxins.2 Also, since caffeine can be a problem for many people, we recommend gradually switching to decaffeinated coffee. You can also try various methods to reduce the amount of caffeine, such as mixing your regular coffee with a decaffeinated one.
- Insomnia: Have you ever noticed you eat more junk food when you’re tired? Lack of restorative sleep can affect your food choices. If you suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders, talk to your clinician. You may need to get it resolved before embarking on an elimination diet.
- Disordered eating: The elimination diet reveals any unusual relationships you may have with certain foods. Don’t take it as a bad thing – we all have relationships with food. For example, you may have developed a habit of eating ice cream whenever you’re stressed out. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Your clinician and dietician will help you overcome any unhealthy relationships you have with food.
An Elimination Diet Could be Worth Your Effort
An elimination diet isn’t a magic bullet and it’s not permanent – but it is a great starting point.
You’ll learn exactly how your body responds to a wide variety of foods. This information alone is invaluable – you may find the answer to your stubborn symptoms and start down the path to long-term healing.
We don’t try to hide the fact that it will be challenging. Without discipline and proper guidance, it’s easy to get derailed and end up back where you started.
But it’s absolutely worth the effort!
What you eat matters, and more importantly, you matter.
This article contains information Ashley Woods, MD shared with patients who participate in our MaxWell Care program. Our group visits (available only to our MaxWell Care patients) are designed to change your life and supercharge your health.
If you have questions about MaxWell Care, schedule a free 20-minute discovery call with our New Patient Coordinator to learn more about how MaxWell Clinic can help you reclaim your health.
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