Food intolerances are common, and not everybody knows that they have one. Some food allergies are obvious. People typically know when they are allergic to shellfish or peanuts. However, there are many more subtle food sensitivities that we may have that we may not be aware of, and an elimination diet is a great way to determine if you have food sensitivities, and if you do, what foods you are sensitive to.
What Is an Elimination Diet?
An elimination diet is a diet that helps you test yourself for food sensitivities. There are different types of elimination diets. Some people simply eliminate common allergens like gluten and dairy for a few weeks to see how they feel, while others may follow a stricter diet like the FODMAP elimination diet to manage symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). As with any major change in diet, it is recommended to consult with your healthcare provider before trying an elimination diet.
The basic premise of an elimination diet is to completely avoid common foods that are known to cause sensitivities, then to reintroduce the eliminated foods into your diet one at a time and carefully observe the effects they have on you. The goal is to identify whether certain foods might be triggering a reaction, such as causing bloating, digestive issues, inflammation, headaches, skin issues or other side effects.
By eliminating food allergens from your diet for a period of time, you might find that certain areas of your life improve. You might notice that you think more clearly, that you sleep better, and that your mood and energy improves. It is important to keep in mind that the elimination diet is temporary, as it may feel a bit challenging or restrictive for a time. Understand that the goal of the elimination diet is to determine if there are foods that you are sensitive to, and to eliminate these foods from your diet so you can stop causing yourself harm. The goal is to improve your overall health and wellness in the long run by following this diet short term.
There are many different allergy tests out there, but the allergy elimination diet is really among the best tests for identifying the foods that don’t work with your system. It is important to also recognize that not all food allergies are instantaneous, severe, or life-threatening like those that can come from shellfish or peanuts. Reactions to allergens can range, and in some people, signs of food intolerances are barely noticeable or not noticeable at all.
For example, gluten, a common food allergen, can simply cause some people to feel tired, which may not even be noticed, or may easily be attributed to something else. Some of the less noticeable reactions to foods may include:
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as bloating, constipation and diarrhea
- Digestive upset
- Stomach aches
- Dry skin
- Joint aches and pains
The way that your body reacts to different allergens is based on your unique chemistry. The key is to pay attention to how your body reacts to what you eat.
What to Eat on An Elimination Diet
To do an elimination diet, you will want to make a list of the foods that you want to test for your body’s reaction. Some common food allergens to consider are:
- Fish and shellfish
- Gluten (including barley, oats, rye and wheat)
- Dairy products (including milk, ice cream and sour cream)
- Nightshades (tomatoes and onion)
- Legumes (including soy-based products, beans, lentils and peas)
- Tree nuts
- Citrus (contain high amounts of potentially reactive antioxidants)
- Non-organic beef, which may contain chemicals like histamine, tyramine, octopamine and phenylethylamine known to potentially cause reactions
- Sweets or candy containing refined sugar, corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors
- Canola Oil
Next, you will want to cut out all of these foods for a few days to a week, eating only foods that are not on this list or the list that you create. Some good gentle foods to consider during this time are:
- Gluten-free grains (quinoa, amaranth, oats, etc.)
- Fruit (no citrus or nightshade)
- Organic meat
- Healthy oils (olive oil, coconut oil, etc.)
Notice how you feel eating an allergen-free diet for a few days. Do you notice any bloating? Do you feel any fatigue? Do you have any of the signs of an allergic reaction? You first want to be sure that none of the foods you are eating in this first phase of the diet are causing you issues. If they are, you will want to take note of what you ate that caused your reaction and to trade out that food for something else. It may be helpful to keep a journal to log what you eat and how your body reacted.
After eating a diet free of common food allergens for several days, begin to reintroduce one test food into your diet. Only introduce one food at a time, and eat this food along with the other allergen-free foods you have been consuming for three days. Notice if your body has any reaction to the food, and if so, what the reaction is.
If your body has a negative reaction to the reintroduced food, then you know you have a sensitivity to that food. It ultimately depends upon how severe the reaction is, and whether the reaction is worth it to you, but ideally you should consider eliminating that food from your diet entirely if your body has a negative reaction to it.
After reintroducing one food for three days, remove that food and go back to eating only the approved, allergen-free foods for a few days until you’re feeling back to normal again.
The next step is to introduce the next food on the list for three days, and same as before, you will want to take detailed note of how you feel during this time. No matter how small it may seem, take note of any change or reaction in the body.
After the three-day period, return to the allergen-free foods for a few days, and then reintroduce the next food on the list, and repeat these steps until you have made it through your entire list of test foods. Once you have finished the list, you should have a clear understanding of what foods affect you, how they affect you, and what foods you will want to eliminate for your diet for good. You will also be clearer about which foods cause no reaction and are safe for you to eat. The best part about this diet is that you learn from your own personal experience, which is the best way for you to learn about your own body.
Sample Meal Plan for the Elimination Diet
Whenever you start an elimination diet, be sure to always thoroughly check your food labels for allergens. Often products contain things like added sugar, soy, canola oil, gluten or dairy, even products that we wouldn’t expect to have these ingredients. Read the labels and make sure you know what foods you are putting in your body.
While you can certainly come up with your own meal plan for this diet, it may be helpful to see an example of what a basic elimination diet meal plan could look like for the day. Keep in mind this is just one example of what you can enjoy during an elimination diet plan, but there are many different elimination diet meal plans:
- Breakfast: Berry-coconut smoothie with oat milk
- Morning Snack: 1 large pear
- Lunch: Large Salad
- Afternoon Snack: 1 medium apple, 2 tsp. pumpkin seeds
- Dinner: Quinoa & vegetable bowl with avocado and grilled chicken (optional)
How Long Does the Elimination Diet Last?
How long an elimination diet lasts depends on the specific type of elimination diet that you choose to do. Some people will feel changes within the first few days, but it can also take several weeks or even several months on an elimination diet to notice a difference, especially if you are going through every food allergen and giving each one a three-day testing period followed by a three-day period of rest in between test foods.
There simply is not a one-size-fits-all period of time for everyone, as each elimination diet is different, and the way you choose to approach it will be different and based on the foods you decide to test. You may even desire to test foods that are not on the list of common food allergens above.
Also, keep in mind that it takes time for your body to flush the trigger foods from your system, and even longer for your body to stop reacting. If your reactions don’t improve right away, keep going—and stay in communication with your healthcare provider.
While an elimination diet can be helpful for some people, it may not work for everyone, and food may not be the problem. Your doctor or healthcare provider can offer specific medical insights and run tests for specific allergens that you may not be able to learn from doing an elimination diet. It may also help to consult with a nutritionist or a registered dietitian for guidance and advice.
Why Everyone Should Try an Elimination Diet
Everyone should try an elimination diet at least once. Even if you don’t think you have any food sensitivities, it’s a good idea to do an elimination diet to be sure. You may be suffering from a food allergy and not even realize it. As mentioned, some of these reactions can be very subtle, and not easily identified as being connected to your food.
For example, a food you are eating may be causing you to feel brain fog or fatigue. Eliminating this food from your diet, you will notice an immediate increase in energy and mental clarity. Other foods may be causing you inflammation or digestive upset, and removing these foods from your diet can improve these symptoms.
An elimination diet can help you identify if you have any food sensitivities, what foods you are sensitive to, and can help you to remove these foods and feel an increase in your health and well-being in doing so. It may be a bit challenging to follow, but keep in mind it is only for a short period of time, and the benefits certainly outweigh the difficulties. Some people may go their entire lives eating foods they have intolerances to. An elimination diet is an excellent way to test yourself for food sensitivities, and to know what foods work for you and what foods don’t.