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What exactly is an elimination diet?
An elimination diet involves avoiding foods that can cause inflammation for several weeks in order to identify food intolerances or sensitivities (these are milder than allergies, with symptoms appearing anywhere from four to 72 hours later). After a few weeks of eating only easily digested foods (read: no pizza!), you will slowly reintroduce foods on the no-no list to see if there is an adverse reaction. "If the reintroduction of any food initiates a reoccurrence of symptoms that were resolved or improved on the diet, then it's likely you've found the culprit," says Dr. Ivanovics. She also reminds us it's not only junk food that can be a trigger, but healthy foods, too, which is why the results can be so enlightening.
At this point you might be wondering if there is a faster way to figure out whether you have food intolerances. The short answer is, yes, there is. But Dr. Ivanovics notes that while blood testing offers an objective measure of your body's intolerances, it can also be expensive. An elimination diet offers "an easy and empowering way to identify which unique foods may be causing your symptoms, and can allow you to regain your health in an efficient and cost effective manner."
And there are added benefits that come along with it, including more energy, increased vitality, improved sleep quality, better digestion, weight loss… the list goes on. Be sure to include plenty of lean protein and healthy fats to keep you feeling full and stabilize blood sugar, and keep hydrated with water and herbal teas to keep flushing those toxins!
You need to ensure you're still getting the proper vitamins, minerals and calories that your body needs to stay healthy and functioning. The key to a proper elimination diet, says Dr. Ivanovics, is preparation. Stocking up on the prescribed foods and ensuring you have plenty of snacks on hand will help abate temporary increase in pangs of hunger and cravings, which Dr. Ivanovics assures will pass. For some, undertaking an elimination diet will not be that far a stretch from their regular food consumption, with a few exceptions. (Dairy, sugar, gluten, coffee and alcohol are typically the first to go.) For those whose diets are based on processed foods, side effects like irritability and headaches pose a greater challenge.
Is an elimination diet right for you?
According to Dr. Ivanovics, an elimination diet can be helpful for those with digestive concerns (anything from diarrhea and constipation to reflux and heartburn), immune dysregulation (including autoimmune diseases, chronic cold and flu, sinusitis, allergies and asthma), and musculoskeletal diseases (such as frequent joint pain, muscle aches, headaches, migraines, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia).
However, if you have been diagnosed with kidney or liver disease, an elimination diet should only be undertaken with strict medical supervision. Caution should also be taken for those with diabetes or uncontrolled blood sugar, a history of low blood sugar, and anyone with a history of an eating disorder.
How to get started
The first step is to assess if you're a candidate. Then, your doctor or naturopath will provide you with a list of foods to cut out (such as bell peppers, a nightshade vegetable with the potential to cause inflammation) and new ones to introduce (like kale, a superfood with a host of nutritional and anti-inflammatory properties). Familiarize yourself with these foods and discuss any obstacles. If you know ahead of time there is one food that will be your kryptonite, tell your doctor so you can find substitutions (and avoid a midnight meltdown that has you scrounging through the cupboards for leftover chocolate).
Putting it into play
If you won't be making the cut for Top Chef any time soon, not to worry! Your doctor can provide you with simple recipes, and there are also resources online and in stores that highlight suitable recipes for an elimination diet.
The elimination diet is divided into two phases. The first phase—the elimination phase—typically lasts for three weeks, and this is where you avoid all the forbidden foods. After your body reaches a clean slate, you will slowly reintroduce the eliminated foods, one at a time, during the reintroduction phase: After you incorporate one food back into your diet, you then observe your symptoms for two days after. If you haven't noticed any adverse reactions, move on to a new food. Keep doing this until you've gone through all the previously eliminated foods to see if you have any reactions, which could take up to eight weeks. You might feel like rushing through this part and lumping in a few foods at a time, but resist the urge. This part of the process is crucial in ensuring all of your hard work won't be for nought.
The most important thing to remember?
Get excited! This is not about deprivation, emphasizes Dr. Ivanovics, but rather about empowering yourself to improve your health using food, our most powerful resource for optimal health.
Check out these 10 things you probably didn't know about food intolerances.