You may not realize it, but the foods you are eating every day could be slowly corrupting your health and shortening your lifespan. But how do you know? For many people, the foods that are toxic are hard to pick out, especially for those who have already cleaned up their diets and feel like they are eating healthy.
For example, I recently saw a patient who came in because she had gotten a facial and was told she had “allergy skin.” The slight redness and tiny bumps on her cheeks were more noticeable to her than anybody else, but they were definitely there. She had already gone mostly gluten free, was a trained health coach, and had an overall very healthy diet. But after talking to her more it was clear that she had signs and symptoms of system-wide inflammation, from needing allergy shots for dust and mold to having gas and bloating that were only soothed by taking digestive enzymes.
This patient had already done a lot of the hard work to solving her issues, but it was clear to me that she still had leaky gut, which is the underlying cause of lots of many people’s allergies and inflammation. She came in because she wanted food allergy testing. She left with an elimination diet. Here’s why.
Testing can be illuminating, but the gold standard, meaning “the last word”, in figuring out if foods are causing inflammation, contributing to leaky gut, and worsening the symptoms of all kinds of diseases from autoimmune conditions like Lupus, to irritable bowel to acne, is to cut out those foods for about a month and see how you feel when you reintroduce them.
I actually recommend that everyone do an elimination diet at least once for three reasons. First, not only does it not hurt, it can give you valuable information about foods you are eating that are making you sick. If your skin is breaking out, imagine what the inflammation looks like on the inside of your body!
Second, you may see improvements you didn’t know you needed. My friend recently went gluten free as an experiment. Before he did it he felt “fine” – no terrible issues with digestion or skin, no depression or irritability. The only health issue he had was bad seasonal allergies that weren’t bothering him now in the wintertime. But, he cut gluten out just to see what happened, and he noticed it improved his energy level, his overall mood, and his sense of mental sharpness, even in the darkest month of the year. Now he is wondering what his allergy season will look like this spring!
Third, just by doing an elimination diet you can start the process of healing leaky gut. In and of itself it is an intervention and a powerful one.
So how do you do it and not make it complicated? Here is my easy step by step plan for doing your own elimination diet. Consider it a risk free experiment. You might be surprised what you learn!
1. Take stock.
It’s hard to know where you are going unless you know where you are. Do you have skin issues? Digestive issues like gas, bloating, or intermittent constipation? Bad allergies? How is your energy, mood and cognition? Do you feel like you suffer from brain fog? These are just some potential symptoms of food allergies. So before you start the diet, make a list of everything you notice in your body going from head to toe, however subtle or however long the symptom has been going on. This sets you up to notice important changes when they happen.
2. Eliminate the Frequent Offenders
The basic elimination diet is a simple as this:
No gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, processed or fast food, or alcohol for 23 days.
Why 23 Days?
Antibodies, which are the proteins that your immune system makes when it reacts to foods, take around 21 to 23 days to turn over, so if you don’t quit things you are sensitive to for at least that time, you won’t get the full effect of eliminating them.
Eliminating alcohol is partly for the detox factor. But alcohol also has a lot of sugar that helps things like yeast and the bad bacteria in your gut thrive. So when you eliminate alcohol you may feel better in a few weeks, not just because of the absence of a sleep disruptor and a depressant in your life, but because you have actually changed the flora in your gut that are critical to keeping you healthy!
If not drinking alcohol for three weeks feels like it’s going to do you in, be honest about that and still do the diet, allowing yourself a weekly vodka or tequila if you must.
3. Cr&*#!p What DO I Eat?
If this is your reaction do not freak out! You can do this. The diet does require a little grocery shopping and taking a few extra minutes a day to prepare food. We’re all habituated to fast food, easy prep, and taking two seconds max to round up and scarf down a meal. The problem is that typically food that can be prepared and consumed this way makes us sick over time.
New habits take 21 days to form, so the yogis say, which is also why we’re doing a 23 day elimination diet! We want these new habits to die hard.
4. But literally, What do I eat?
30% “clean” protein, ie organic, hormone-free, grass fed, happy, lean beef, chicken and fish.
70% vegetables, legumes (think beans and lentils), nuts and seeds, seaweeds, and gluten-free grains like quinoa.
See it’s that simple!
5. Helpful pointers on what to eat and what to avoid:
Watch out for oats they almost always have gluten!
Eating fish is great, but watch out for fish on the NRDC’s high mercury list like tuna and swordfish.
DO eat lots of fiber, fresh whole foods, and unprocessed meals you make yourself.
DO eat lots of healthy fats like olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, sunflower oil, flax oil, walnut oil, and avocados.
Do NOT eat processed health bars if possible. They often have 15+ grams of sugar. If you need them for an emergency snack, the kinds I like are Go Raw pumpkin bars and Kind’s “Nuts and Spices” variety, because they are very low in sugar.
Do NOT carbo load on gluten free breads and cereals and crackers etc. Totally cool to eat some of this stuff, like a gluten-free, non-corn-based cereal if you need a breakfast alternative, but in an ideal world you’re not just replacing a lot of refined carbs with a lot of gluten free refined carbs.
What’s up with soy? Non-GMO organic soy that has been fermented, ie tempeh and miso, can be a great source of plant-based protein in the long run. But some people are sensitive to soy and benefit from eliminating it. For the diet, avoid soy milk, tofu, edamame and also fermented soy like tempeh.
What’s up with night shades? Night shades are a family of veggies that include white potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Unless you already have a strong suspicion that these are a problem for you, I usually suggest eliminating these as a group another time, and keeping your round one elimination diet as basic simple as possible.
What if I need to lose weight or I’m diabetic? Same diet. Your metabolism should rev up on this diet after a week or two if not immediately. But that isn’t an invitation to gorge. If you’re overweight be mindful of your portion sizes, especially with nuts and nut butters. If you’re diabetic, be aware that high sugar foods like grapes and winter squash might be a problem.
6. How do I reintroduce foods the right way?
This is also much simpler than people make it out to be. On day 24 of the diet, pick one thing you eliminated – like gluten, OR dairy, OR eggs – but not more than one, and eat it.
See how you feel over the next 48 hours. If you have no reaction after two days, eat that same food again, and for a second time, notice how you feel. From there it’s up to you whether to re-incorporate that food into your diet on a regular basis or not.
Once you’ve made a call on the first food you reintroduce, pick another one and follow the same steps.
7. This all works best when you pay attention to you.
Throughout the diet and the reintroduction process take notice of how you feel. Maybe you will have reactions you weren’t looking for. Maybe your sleep quality or your energy level is better. Maybe you’re less prone to redness in your skin. Maybe your belly is flatter.
No blood test can tell you what actually experiencing life without a particular food will be like. When you find out for yourself, you could be saving yourself a lifetime of inflammation, annoying symptoms, and in some cases, even the kinds of life threatening diseases that inflammation promotes, including cancer. And at the least, it’s an easy, simple and great way to get to know your body better.