What's An Elimination Diet, How and Why to Try One

A few years ago, I was driving home from having dinner with a friend at my favorite sushi restaurant when I almost had to pull over. I had such a strong pain in my gut that I wanted to doubled over. It was the kind of pain where you can feel your stomach churn.

After that episode, I started to pay more attention to how I felt after eating. I noticed that I often felt symptoms like gassiness, extreme bloating, distention, irregular bowel movements, and sharp cramp-like pains.

I felt terrible all the time.

It was then that I realized my digestion was less than optimal. I felt dumb that I hadn't noticed this before, but also thankful that I had enough sense to realize that this wasn't normal.

And I had to do something about it.

This was when I began to research and find out all that I could about why I was experiencing this, and what I could do about it.

For so long I had chalked up my gut issues to "runners problems." Because so many runners experience it that I thought it was just par for the course. But along the way I realized this was not the case. GI distress was my body's way of telling me that something was off in my body.

I needed a reliable way to find out WHY this was happening and, more importantly, WHAT was causing my discomfort. That’s when I learned about an elimination diet.

What Is An Elimination Diet

An elimination diet is an approach to figuring out which foods you are sensitive to so that you can eat mindfully and keep your digestive symptoms at bay. 

The gut is where the majority of your immune system is and is considered the “second brain” in your body, so it is important to keep it healthy and keep things running smoothly. 

In an elimination diet, you start by eliminating common culprits of digestive upset and common food allergens. You dial down your daily meals and snacks so that you are only eating real, nourishing foods that will not hurt your gut. In fact, you can begin to heal your gut with a proper elimination diet. 

What Foods To Eliminate

The most common food to eliminate are:

  • Grains: For decades grains were the foundation of the food pyramid. It has now been discovered that many people have a hard time digesting grains, including corn. There are a number of reasons for this including the quality of soil, methods use to grow the crops, etc.
  • Processed Foods: Processed foods contain many toxic chemicals like MSG, artificial colors, and flavorings. They also have other undesirable ingredients like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), trans fats, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These toxins can impede digestion which, over a prolonged period of time, can lead to disease.
  • High Glycemic Foods: Large amounts of starches and added sugars can feed a bacterial overgrowth (like SIBO) and an imbalance in the gut flora (also known as gut dysbiosis) problems.
  • Gluten: Gluten is a protein that is commonly found in wheat and other grains like barley, rye, and oats. It disrupts the digestive system and has been found to be one of the causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome and can also contribute to autoimmune diseases. 
  • Fructans: Fructans are short-chain carbohydrates and are a FODMAP food. Fructans are found in foods that are normally considered healthy, like garlic and onions. However, people with digestive issues like IBS and SIBO who's bodies poorly absorb food should avoid high FODMAP foods as it can feed those bad bugs (bacteria) in the gut.
  • Unrefined Oils: They can cause inflammation throughout your body.
  • Feedlot Meats and Dairy: Meats and dairy from the conventional food system are full of hormones, antibiotics, and even poisons such as arsenic. 
  • Eggs, Peanuts, and Shellfish: All are common food allergens.
  • Additional Gut Irritants: Caffeine and alcohol can wreak havoc on your gut. It's best to avoid them while you are healing.

How To Do An Elimination Diet

An elimination diet can range anywhere from seven days to two weeks. Sometimes longer. During this time, you eliminate your suspect foods. I highly recommend keeping a very detailed food journal to track your experiences and findings. 

When you are ready to reintroduce eliminated foods, there is a 3/3 guideline to follow.

“Do not conclude a food causes symptoms unless symptoms occur within three days of eating the food and occur consistently on three separate occasions after eating it.”***

You will know, as you begin to add foods back in, what works and what doesn’t. The reintroduction phase can take place over an extended period of time, depending on the number of foods you are reintroducing. I recommend starting slowly, and start adding foods back in one at a time. 

If a food causes symptoms on three different occasions, then you will know that you are sensitive to that food. If this happens you should avoid it for a while and try introducing it again later. 

Eventually, you will formulate a plan that your body will love. 

I have since put my detective hat on and done many successful and unsuccessful elimination diets. With each one, whether successful or not, I learned a lot about myself - about what my digestive system currently tolerates (and doesn't), and also about my own mindset and habits.

I cannot stress enough that everyone is different. One man's food can be another person's poison. It's important to find your own unique way of eating that feels good and will change your life. 

Have you ever tried an elimination diet before? What did you discover?

***Heizer, W D., Southern, S, McGovern, S. The Role of Diet in Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults: A Narrative Review. JADA 2009; 109: 1204-1214

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Naomi Nakamura is a certified Holistic Health Coach who takes a holistic approach through functional nutrition. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, coaching programs, and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with acne and other chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop! Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest.