Elimination diets are the gold standard for determining food sensitivities. For the autoimmune population, they can be extremely effective in reducing flares, improving symptoms, and even putting some conditions into remission. Many people who attempt elimination diets are not successful because they are extremely challenging. However, it is totally possible to do an elimination diet without the help of a trained expert. All it takes is planning and patience.
Should I do an elimination diet?
The first step is to determine if you should even embark on an elimination diet journey, because it is a journey! Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you experience frequent flares with your autoimmune disease?
- Do you sometimes experience digestive discomfort but have trouble pinpointing the foods that trigger these symptoms?
- Do you suspect that the food you eat may be causing issues?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then an elimination diet may help you feel better.
Which elimination diet is best for me?
There are many elimination diets to choose from. The two most popular ones for inflammation are the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) and FODMAP. AIP is tailored for those of us with underlying autoimmune diseases (1). It is designed to help lessen flares and better manage our diseases. The FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) diet was designed for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which can cause digestive discomfort and pain (2).
The best diet for you to follow is the one that will tackle your most pressing symptoms. Now, you can actually combine AIP and FODMAP if you suffer from both, but it will just require additional planning on your part.
How do I start an elimination diet?
Here are my top tips for embarking on an elimination diet journey.
Step one: Understand the foods you are allowed and not allowed to eat
This is KEY. You do not want to be halfway through your elimination diet and realize that the almond butter you’ve been eating every single day is on your avoid list. I recommend printing out a list of the foods from both lists. Read through the foods you are eliminating and circle the ones you frequently eat.
Once you finish circling those foods, think of allowed alternatives for all of those circled items. On a separate piece of paper, brainstorm meal ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Don’t forget to think about condiments and spices too, because those can help spice up any dish, but may also contain ingredients that you are avoiding.
Step two: Do a pantry clean-out
Keeping prohibited foods in your pantry is just an invitation to cheat. The best way to boost your chances of compliance is to clean out your pantry. Do this in 3 phases:
- Throw out the stuff that you will likely never eat again. This may include processed foods, refined oils, gluten containing products, items with processed sugars or food chemicals and additives. Put these in a box and donate them if possible.
- Take out another large box or container and place the “maybe” foods in here. This includes food items that are off-limits in the short term, but may be added back at some point in the future. This may include nuts and seeds, coffee, chocolate and other gluten free items like rice pasta or beans. I would still keep this box in a place that you cannot see or access easily.
- Re-stock your pantry with foods you CAN eat. This includes all of your cooking oils and spices, baking ingredients, snacks, canned fish and sweeteners.
Step three: Meal and snack prep before you start
Go back to your list of meal ideas and pick a couple that can be made in advance and freeze well. I love making soups and stews to have on hand when I’m pinched for time. Also think of some snacks that would be satisfying if you need them. If they require advanced preparation, do this before you begin the diet. Having food on hand is essential for avoiding a food emergency (and being hangry when there’s nothing in your fridge to eat).
Step four: Pick a day to begin
This may seem like an easy step, but please be careful about when you decide to embark on an elimination diet. Most elimination diets last anywhere from 4 weeks up to 3 months. You want to pick a time in your life where travel is minimal and you don’t have a booked up social calendar. It can be very difficult to eat out when you first start on this journey, and traveling can always get complicated. Sometimes there is never a “good” time and you will just need to make do.
How and when do I reintroduce foods?
This is the trickiest part, because there is no specific timeframe to start reintroductions. It really depends on how you feel. If you feel great after 4 weeks, then by all means start adding in foods. Not feeling so great after a month? I would continue avoiding any new foods until symptoms improve. If it’s been about 3 months and you haven’t seen any progress, then it is time to reach out to an expert for help.
In terms of reintroducing foods, slow and steady is the name of the game. Here are some tips for managing reintroductions:
- Use a food journal to track foods reintroduced and symptoms, so you can tell if you experienced a food reaction.
- Add one new food every 3 or more days. Start off with a bite. If no reaction occurred, have a little more. Increase your portion size to a normal portion as long as there is no reaction.
- If you have a reaction, remove that food immediately and wait until things calm down before adding a new food.
With a lot of planning and patience, elimination diets can be incredibly helpful. If you need a bit more hand holding, check out my group program that is currently open for enrollment, or schedule a free call with me to talk more about your health goals.