Updated: Jun 15
Have you ever experienced bloating, fatigue, or brain fog after a meal, but couldn't quite pinpoint what caused it? Food allergies and intolerances are becoming increasingly common, and they can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.
One way to identify potential culprits is through an elimination diet. In this article, we'll delve into the details of what an elimination diet is, who should consider it, and how to do it successfully.
What Is An Elimination Diet?
An elimination diet involves removing specific foods from your diet for a set period, typically 2-4 weeks, and then reintroducing them one at a time to observe any reactions. The goal is to identify potential food sensitivities that may be causing symptoms like bloating, skin rashes, headaches, or joint pain.
The concept of the elimination diet was first proposed by Dr. Albert Rowe in 1926 and expounded upon in his book, Elimination Diets and the Patient's Allergies, published in 1941.
An elimination diet can take many forms, but a common one is a 10-day reset, as popularized by functional medicine expert Mark Hyman, MD.
The purpose of this 10-day challenge is to “reboot your biology, reduce cravings, reduce inflammation, optimize your gut health, and support healthy blood sugar.” (The Pegan Diet, 2021). Dr. Hyman describes it as, “a whole-food based, low-glycemic, anti-inflammatory, gut-healing, detoxifying, phytochemical-rich diet.”
Who Should Consider an Elimination Diet
Dr. Angelo Falcone and I typically have 90% of our patients complete this reset, because it allows patients to start their wellness journey from scratch.
Having this base will provide a foundation that you can build upon, one layer at a time. The most common feedback that I have received is that it’s mind-clarifying, task-orienting, and easier to complete as the days go on.
But even if you aren’t involved with an integrative medicine practice like ours, an elimination diet can be a useful tool for anyone who is experiencing chronic health issues that may be related to food sensitivities.
This type of diet may be especially beneficial for individuals with autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or multiple sclerosis. These conditions are characterized by chronic inflammation in the body, and removing potential triggers from the diet may help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms.
Additionally, those with digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may benefit from an elimination diet. These conditions can cause a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. Identifying and removing potential trigger foods may help reduce symptoms and improve overall digestive health.
Skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or acne may also be related to food sensitivities, and an elimination diet may help identify potential triggers. By removing common allergens and focusing on nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods, individuals with skin issues may see an improvement in their symptoms.
Migraines are another condition that may be related to food sensitivities, and an elimination diet may be helpful for identifying potential triggers. Common trigger foods include dairy, gluten, chocolate, and caffeine. By removing these foods and slowly reintroducing them, individuals may be able to identify specific triggers and avoid them in the future.
Even if you don't have a specific chronic health issue, an elimination diet may be helpful if you're experiencing vague symptoms like bloating, fatigue, brain fog, or joint pain. These symptoms can be related to food sensitivities, and removing potential trigger foods may help improve overall health and well-being.
The Benefits of an Elimination Diet
The elimination diet can help with:
Identifying food sensitivities: An elimination diet can help pinpoint specific foods that may be causing symptoms or contributing to chronic health issues. This can help individuals make targeted dietary changes to improve their health and reduce symptoms.
Reducing inflammation: Many chronic health issues are characterized by inflammation in the body. By removing potential trigger foods from the diet, individuals can reduce inflammation and support healing.
Improving digestion: Digestive issues like bloating, gas, and diarrhea can be caused by food sensitivities or intolerances. By eliminating trigger foods, individuals may experience improved digestion and reduced symptoms.
Increasing energy levels: Food sensitivities can contribute to feelings of fatigue and low energy. By removing problematic foods from the diet, individuals may experience increased energy levels and improved stamina.
Enhancing mental clarity: Food sensitivities can also impact cognitive function, leading to brain fog and difficulty concentrating. By eliminating trigger foods, individuals may experience improved mental clarity and focus.
While I list all the wonderful benefits of this challenge, it is still a challenge! It takes self-discipline, strength, trust, and excitement to give your health the attention it deserves. Do not give up on yourself because your mind and your gut will thank you later!
Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance
Food allergy is a reaction of the immune system to a specific food protein, while food intolerance is a non-immune reaction to a food component.
Immune response: In food allergy, the immune system reacts to a specific food protein as if it were a threat, triggering an allergic reaction. In food intolerance, the immune system is not involved, and the reaction is caused by the body's inability to digest or process a certain food component.
Severity of reaction: Food allergy reactions can range from mild to severe and can be life-threatening in some cases, while food intolerance reactions are generally less severe and do not pose a life-threatening risk.
Timing of reaction: Food allergy reactions typically occur within minutes to a few hours of consuming the offending food, while food intolerance reactions may take longer to develop and may not be immediately obvious.
Symptoms: Food allergy symptoms can include hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and anaphylaxis, while food intolerance symptoms can include bloating, gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
Diagnostic tests: Food allergy can be diagnosed with skin prick tests or blood tests, while food intolerance may be diagnosed through elimination diets or other diagnostic tests, such as a lactose intolerance breath test.
Involves the immune system reacting to a food protein
Non-immune reaction to a food component
Severity of reaction
Can be life-threatening
Generally less severe
Timing of reaction
Typically occurs within minutes to a few hours of consuming the offending food
May take longer to develop
Hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis
Bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain
Skin prick tests, blood tests
Elimination diets, lactose intolerance breath test
It's important to note that food allergies and food intolerances can have similar symptoms, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two without proper testing. If you suspect that you have a food allergy or intolerance, it's important to speak with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Preparing for the Elimination Diet
Before starting the elimination diet, it's essential to prepare by gathering resources and setting clear goals. Consider working with a qualified functional or integrative medicine physician or a registered dietitian to ensure you're getting adequate nutrients during the process.
Foods to Avoid During the Elimination Phase
During the elimination phase, you'll need to remove common allergens like gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, and nuts. Additionally, you'll want to avoid processed foods, refined sugar, and artificial sweeteners.
Foods to Include During the Elimination Phase
Focus on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and gluten-free grains like quinoa or brown rice. Incorporate anti-inflammatory foods like leafy greens, wild-caught fish, and turmeric to support healing.
Please refer to the chart below via Dr. Hyman's 10-Day Reset:
Foods to Include
Foods to Avoid
Meats, poultry, and eggs
• Pasture-raised chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant
• Pasture-raised and organic eggs
• Grass-fed, pasture-raised lamb, beef, bison, venison, ostrich, deer, elk
• Conventionally-raised chicken, duck, eggs, turkey
• All processed meats and deli meats
• Conventionally-raised bacon, beef, hot dogs, lamb, pork, sausage, salami
Fish and seafood
• Anchovies, clams, cod, crab, flounder, sole, herring, small halibut, mussels, wild salmon (canned or fresh), sardines, sable, shrimp, scallops, trout
• Larger fish like halibut, Chilean sea bass, tuna, swordfish
• Almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, raw cacao
• Nut butters that contain hydrogenated oils or sugar
• Chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower
Nut / Seed butters and flour
• Unsweetened almond, cashew, pecan, macadamia, walnut, coconut
• Peanut oil
• Nut butters that contain hydrogenated oils or sugar
• Grass-fed ghee
• Humanely raised tallow, lard, duck fat, chicken fat
• Organic avocado oil, virgin coconut oil, almond oil, flax oil, hemp oil, macadamia oil, extra virgin olive oil, sesame seed oil, walnut oil, Tahini
• Canola oil, partially or fully-hydrogenated oils, margarine, peanut oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, trans fats, vegetable oil, vegetable shortening
• Non starchy: organic artichokes, asparagus, avocado, bean sprouts, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, ginger root, kohlrabi, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions, peppers, radicchio, radish, rutabaga, seaweed, shallots, summer squash, tomatoes, turnips, zucchini
• Starchy: yam, sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin (limited to 1/2 cup per day)
• Corn, white potatoes
• Grass-fed Ghee
• ALL dairy other than grass-fed ghee
• Green beans, green peas, gluten-free soy sauce, lentils, miso, tempeh, chickpeas, black beans, snap peas, snow pease
• Soy, soy milk, lima beans, baked beans
• Avoid ALL beans if you have an autoimmune condition, pre-diabetes, diabetes, or leaky guy
• Quinoa (limited to 1/2 cup per day)
• Wheat, barley, rye, rice, amaranth, millet, spelt, oats, semolina couscous, all sources of gluten
• Organic blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, kiwi, lemons, likes, raspberries (limited to 1/2 cup per day)
• High-glycemic fruits: bananas, dried fruit, fruit juice, grapes, mangoes, pineapples, apples, cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears, strawberries
Sugars and sweetners
• ALL sugars, sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners
• Purified water, herbal tea, seltzer, mineral water
• Alcohol, coffee, soda, sugary beverages
How Long to Follow the Elimination Phase
During the elimination phase of the diet, it is important to strictly avoid the foods on the "Avoid" list and focus on consuming foods from the "Include" list.
The length of the elimination phase can vary depending on individual symptoms and goals. Generally, the elimination phase lasts between 2-4 weeks.
For some individuals, a longer elimination period may be necessary. This may be the case for those with severe or chronic health issues, who may require a longer period of time to allow the body to heal from inflammation and to fully eliminate the problematic foods from their system.
It is important to work with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian to determine the appropriate length of the elimination phase based on individual needs and circumstances.
Once the elimination phase is complete, the reintroduction phase can begin. It's important to note that the elimination diet should not be followed indefinitely, as it can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Instead, it should be used as a tool to identify food sensitivities and to improve overall health and well-being.
Keeping a Food Diary to Track Progress
Keeping a food diary can help you track your progress during the elimination phase. Record what you eat, any symptoms you experience, and how you're feeling each day. This information can help you identify patterns and make adjustments as needed.
How to Reintroduce Foods
The reintroduction phase is a critical part of the elimination diet, as it allows you to identify which specific foods may be causing symptoms and which ones can be safely consumed without issue.
The process involves adding back one food group at a time, while carefully monitoring your body's reactions.
To begin the reintroduction phase, it is important to start with a small amount of the food being reintroduced. This allows you to gauge your body's response to the food without overwhelming your system. Begin with a small serving size, such as a quarter cup, and gradually increase over several days.
Importance of Paying Attention to Your Body's Reactions
It's important to carefully monitor your body's reactions during this phase. Note any symptoms in your food diary that occur after consuming the reintroduced food.
Symptoms may include digestive issues, headaches, skin rashes, or joint pain. It is important to record the severity and duration of symptoms to accurately identify which foods are problematic.
If you don't experience any adverse reactions after reintroducing a specific food, you can continue to eat it as part of your regular diet. However, it is important to continue to consume the food in moderation and not overdo it, as excessive consumption of any food can lead to health issues over time.
Reintroducing Foods in a Systematic Manner
Reintroducing foods in a systematic manner is essential to accurately identifying food sensitivities. It is recommended to wait at least three days before reintroducing another food group, as this allows time for any potential symptoms to fully manifest.
The process of reintroducing foods can take several weeks or even months, depending on the number of food groups being tested and the severity of symptoms. However, the end result is a clearer understanding of which foods to avoid and which ones can be consumed without issue.
Foods to Reintroduce First
When reintroducing foods, it's important to start with the foods that are least likely to cause a reaction and gradually work your way up to more challenging foods. Here are some foods that are typically recommended to reintroduce first:
Non-gluten grains: This includes grains like rice, quinoa, and oats. These grains are generally well-tolerated and are less likely to cause reactions.
Legumes: Legumes, including beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are a good source of protein and fiber. However, some people may have difficulty digesting them, so it's important to reintroduce them slowly.
Dairy: Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are a common source of food sensitivity. It's important to choose high-quality dairy products and reintroduce them slowly to determine if your body can tolerate them.
Eggs: Eggs are a good source of protein and are included in many foods, so it's important to reintroduce them early in the process.
Gluten-containing grains: This includes grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten is a common source of food sensitivity, so it's important to reintroduce these grains last and carefully monitor your body's reaction.
It's important to note that everyone's body is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. It's important to pay attention to your body's reactions and make adjustments accordingly. Additionally, if you have a known food allergy, it's important to avoid that food altogether, even during the reintroduction phase.
Tips for Success
Planning Meals During the Elimination Diet
Planning meals during the elimination diet can help ensure you're getting adequate nutrients and staying on track. Focus on simple, whole-food-based meals that incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense foods.
Read our post on meal-planning here.
Dealing with Cravings
Cravings can be a challenge during the elimination diet, but there are ways to cope. Incorporating healthy fats like avocado or nuts can help keep you feeling satisfied, while herbal teas or fruits like raspberries and blueberries can satisfy a sweet tooth.
Eating Out on an Elimination Diet
Eating out on an elimination diet can be challenging, but it's not impossible.
Research restaurants ahead of time and communicate your needs with the server. Many restaurants are accommodating to dietary restrictions, and you can always opt for simple dishes like grilled meat or fish with a side of vegetables.
Coping with Food Allergies and Sensitivities
Coping with food allergies and sensitivities can be overwhelming, but it's important to remember that you're not alone. Seek support from friends, family, or a qualified healthcare practitioner, such an integrative or functional medicine doctor.
Additionally, many online resources offer recipes, meal plans, and tips for navigating food allergies and intolerances.
Risks of an Elimination Diet
While an elimination diet can be a valuable tool for identifying food sensitivities and improving overall health, there are some potential risks and drawbacks to consider.
Nutrient Deficiencies: Eliminating entire food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies if you are not careful to include a variety of nutrient-dense foods in your diet.
Social Isolation: Following a strict elimination diet can make social situations challenging and may lead to feelings of isolation or exclusion.
Disordered Eating: In some cases, the elimination diet can trigger disordered eating patterns or exacerbate an existing eating disorder.
Incomplete Results: While the elimination diet can be effective in identifying food sensitivities, it may not catch all of the underlying issues contributing to chronic health problems.
Difficulties with Compliance: Following a strict elimination diet can be challenging and may require significant planning, preparation, and discipline.
It's essential to consult with a healthcare professional before starting an elimination diet, especially if you have a history of disordered eating, nutrient deficiencies, or chronic health issues. A qualified healthcare provider can help you create a personalized plan that minimizes the risks and maximizes the benefits of the elimination diet.
How do I know if I have food sensitivities?
Symptoms of food sensitivities can vary, but common signs include bloating, gas, diarrhea, skin rashes, headaches, or joint pain. If you suspect you have a food sensitivity, consider an elimination diet or work with a qualified healthcare practitioner to identify potential culprits.
Can I do an elimination diet if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?
It's important to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before starting an elimination diet if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. The elimination diet may not be appropriate for everyone, and it's essential to ensure you're getting adequate nutrients for you and your baby.
Is an elimination diet safe for children?
An elimination diet may be appropriate for children with chronic health issues or suspected food sensitivities, but it's important to work with a qualified healthcare practitioner to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Additionally, it's important to ensure children are getting enough calories for growth and development.
Can an elimination diet cure food allergies?
An elimination diet cannot cure food allergies, but it can help identify potential triggers and reduce inflammation in the body. If you have a food allergy, it's essential to avoid that food entirely and carry appropriate medications like an EpiPen in case of accidental exposure.
How long should I wait between reintroducing foods?
It's recommended to wait 2-3 days between reintroducing foods to allow enough time for any potential reactions to manifest. Additionally, it's important to ensure you're feeling well before adding in another food group.