Personalize your approach to food: the elimination diet

Why are some foods good for one person and not another?

 Humans are bio-individuals.  The complex systems that make each of us will never react the same as any other person’s system. 

We see bio-individuality in all aspects of life.  Some folks love opera and others love heavy metal.  Some worship the sun, others avoid sun like the plague.  Some folks eat a lot of peanut butter, others have a severe and dangerous reaction to a tiny fragment of a peanut.  Genetics and family traditions also impact our ability to digest and tolerate particular foods.  No one approach to eating works for everyone! 

How can a person know what to eat with so much conflicting information? 

Progressive practitioners use a method for eliminating inflammation-provoking foods to identify any food or foods that you might not realize you are sensitive to. 

There are many reasons your body might react to food including a wide range of issues like auto-immune disorder, leaky gut and low levels of healthy bacteria in your digestive system. 


While you might have gotten a diagnosis for your symptoms or you might not have, the immune system is over-reacting to particular foods which are causing inflammation.  The continued exposure to a food that is problematic means continued inflammation.  Taking the inflammation-causing food out of the diet will allow the body to stop making antibodies and the tissue will begin to repair.


Because we are each unique, creating an individualized eating plan makes so much sense!  The Elimination Diet is relatively simple and available for anyone to try.  I like to call it a jumpstart to health, or a reset for your system.  It might also be called a cleansing diet, though it isn’t entirely the same.  Typically a cleansing diet is looking to support the liver and general detoxification.  The elimination diet focuses on identifying which food or foods cause inflammation in an individual.  


If you feel overwhelmed and wish to have help for getting through, look to functional medicine doctors, nutritionists, herbalists and health coaches for support.


Elimination Phase


This phase gives your body a much-needed break from digesting foods that are not tolerated.


Of particular importance with the Elimination Diet is to completely avoid the potential-inflammatory food for the full 3 – 4 weeks.  During this elimination phase,  it is imperative your body is not exposed to the food in question. Because our immune system builds antibodies to address the inflammatory item, we build up a kind of tolerance.  Any antibodies you’ve been making to help handle this problem food (unbeknownst to you) will have time to clear out of your system.  Once the antibodies clear, re-exposure to a food you are sensitive to will cause a more dramatic reaction. 


Personally, I recommend going for 23-28 days.  Most of these antibodies do clear in 21 days,  a few more in 23, and fewer still take up to 28 days.   The first time I did the Elimination Phase for 3 weeks.  The second time, 4 weeks.   4 weeks was more effective for me.  I felt it was a better test. 


Reintroduction phase


After you have completely avoided the food for at least 3 weeks,  it’s time to start the reintroduction phase.  When you reintroduce the food, 1 item at a time, you have a chance to observe your own personal reaction to each food.  If you wind up with unwanted side effects from reintroduction, you know you have an intolerance or a sensitivity to that food.  If you feel good after reintroduction, congratulations you can include that food back into your diet now.


Start with 1 food and eat an average-sized portion.   Everyone agrees there.  As to what food to reintroduce first and how long to wait before adding another food, the experts have differing opinions.  Using your own intuition and situation will benefit you greatly.  Unless you are working with a practitioner on a specific approach for a particular diagnosis, this is your body and your process.  Just be honest with yourself about what does or does not work.  Be honest with yourself in both phases.


  • Introduce food, 1-3 servings over the course of 1-2 days
  • Keep track of any side effects*
  • Wait 2-4 days before reintroducing the next food
  • If you notice symptoms, stop eating the food and wait 2-4 days then reintroduce another food
  • If you do not notice unwanted side effects, and you feel good after adding it back, you are not showing sensitivity to that food
  • Wait 2-4 days between each reintroduction, to be sure you’ve allowed for any delayed reaction (keep a food journal*)
  • Once you have gone through the list of foods to reintroduce, you can try the food you reacted to again
  • If you show unwanted side effects a second time, you are sensitive or intolerant to that food and will want to avoid it for a period of time
  • It is possible to work on improving gut flora and healing damaged tissue and reintroduce a problem food at a later time, 3-6 months minimum for completion of digestive repair
  • If you react again, keep working on repair and try again in another 6 months
  • You might ultimately find it best to avoid the food altogether if you have a food intolerance.  Don't worry, the health benefits from avoiding a problem food will help inspire you!


*Keep a food journal to note what you eat, what is happening (at work, stressed out, day off) and how you feel.  Be specific.  Include things like “low energy in the afternoon,”   “gassy before bed” “itchy arms” or  hopefully “felt great after lunch.”  Sleep patterns and moods are helpful to note.  You are being a detective so note anything even if it doesn’t seem relevant.


People are typically surprised by what they find.  The first time I did it, I reacted only to coffee.  I had ignored the fact it makes my stomach hurt when I drink too much. I had not realized it was causing me to continuously clear my throat.  While it was sad to give up coffee, a beverage I love, the reduced bloating is a great benefit!  I am fine to drink black or green tea instead.


You might wonder if there is any science behind this concept.  Yes, there is some.  Research is starting to help us understand the role of our immune response to food intolerance and its role in disease.  Nutrition science is still young though, and research on the topic is incomplete.  Look for more research to come as medicine develops the need to personalize approaches to health care. 


Why might an Elimination Diet help? 

Many disorders are associated with food intolerance including auto-immune disorders, IBS and other digestive challenges, skin issues, and low energy.   

Finding and addressing the root cause of the reason your body is experiencing inflammation can go a long way to either eliminating or managing the symptoms.  You enjoy a much-improved quality of life by identifying your particular triggers.  Food is quite often the trigger.


Here are some of the improvements reported upon eliminating problem foods:

  • improved digestion
  • reduced gas 
  • reduced bloating 
  • reduced inflammation
  • reduced joint pain
  • reduced anxiety
  • increased energy
  • easier to lose weight
  • improved immune funcion and 
  • fewer sick days


Sound good?  If you have health symptoms and have not found the root cause for those symptoms, the elimination diet is a great tool for ruling out any potential food intolerance or sensitivity.   


So what foods do you avoid in an Elimination Diet?


Start by eliminating all processed foods, which are filled with sugar, poor fats, and chemical ingredients. 

Be sure to read labels!  For example, some store bought Taco Seasoning blends contain only spices but quite often you find other ingredients too: maltodextrin (artificial sweetener), gluten-containing hydrolyzed wheat ingredients and other preservatives.  Gluten finds all places to hide.  Many are in processed foods.  Here is Shelley Case's gluten-free list.  She is a top expert on gluten-free living with an informative site!  Be sure to look over the list before you go shopping.   I was surprised to find brewers yeast on the list.    


Many practitioners suggest starting with the most common foods causing inflammation:

  • gluten
  • dairy
  • soy
  • corn
  • eggs


Pending the situation, you might want to add:

  • shellfish
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • legumes
  • all grains


If this causes you to panic, you might consider going through the list in parts.  For example, you might do half at a time or one or two foods at a time.  


If you have an auto-immune disorder or many sensitivities, I strongly encourage you to find a practitioner to help you.  Look for MDs who practice functional medicine; the Elimination Diet is a routine part of their approach.  If you cannot find an MD in your area, consider a health coach or another qualified practitioner with experience with Elimination Diets to help you.


What to expect on an Elimination Diet


You can expect to feel better on this diet.  Almost everyone who does it sees improved health outcomes.  


Most, if not everyone, will benefit greatly from removing all sugar and processed foods.  Some people start feeling better right away and others take a little longer to begin to notice small differences. 


Especially during the first 3 days, some people notice signs of withdrawal or detoxing.  This can present as a headache, fatigue, or other discomforts. 


Tips for managing detox symptoms:


  • Epsom salt bath
  • Calming essential oils in the bath, or in a room diffuser
  • Activated charcoal (take supplement form internally and/or add to bath)
  • Liver supportive herbals: dandelion root, burdock root or milk thistle as food, tea or tincture
  • Include broccoli sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables in your meals
  • Go for a brisk walk, dance around, take a yoga class, get to the gym or move in some other fashion that makes you happy
  • Drink plenty of water! Be sure you are getting a minimum of 10 x 8 ounce glasses per day, drink more if you are used to plenty of water


The transition phase


If you eat a lot of processed or packaged and prepared foods, I recommend you start simple and go through a transition phase first. 


Begin by integrating whole foods and learning to cook some very basic recipes. 

  • Take the chance to use up the last of the foods you will phase out while you begin to integrate a lot more vegetables 
  • Get mentally prepared. 
  • Make a meal plan and grocery list so you can replace the dairy etc as you finish it off.
  • Be ready with a cleaned out fridge and fresh grocery supply when it’s time to start the Elimination Phase.


You will be creating new healthy habits so clear out the old and welcome in the new.  I love to think of this process as a jumpstart to health! 

Bonus tip: this is a great time to start cultivating mindful eating.


If you suspect you struggle with food not on the “most common problem” lists


Go ahead and exclude that food.  For example, if you know jalapenos make your ears itch every time you eat them, it could be you are sensitive to jalapeno.  Include jalapeno in the elimination phase and add it back with the 2-4 day waiting period.  This is your investigation into your own body’s reactions, so use your intuition to help guide you.


There is plenty of reason to be optimistic here!


Even if you find that you are not tolerating a food, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will have to give it up forever.   By avoiding the food for 6 months and taking steps to improve the integrity of the digestive system,  some people find they can integrate the offender foods back in small amounts.  You might not, but it is at least possible.


Either way, giving up the food and feeling better is great ongoing motivation.  Feeling better is also addictive.   

You learn to find substitute options for your favorites.  For instance, you can make a delicious pizza with a vegetable crust and make the toppings so yummy you don’t even miss the cheese.  Vegan, GF or Paleo pizza is possible! 


What CAN I eat?


This is by far the most asked question showing up about Elimination Diets.  Indeed, I typed this very question in first when doing my own research.  The task of removing all these foods, or even just a favorite food like cheese, often seems completely overwhelming.   We tend to become used to certain conveniences in the modern and fast-paced world.  


Be reassured, there is more to eat than you think!  You may even find you soon crave the healthier options.  Once you let go of the processed foods, sugar, bad fats and problem foods your taste buds start to shift and healthy food will taste better to you than the junk food does now.   I promise!


Many parents find themselves looking for this information for their children or for themselves when breastfeeding and the infant has a digestive reaction to mother's milk.  I urge you to look for additional resources on this topic.  Be sure to work with your ObGyn or midwife to help guide the process. 

If there are real concerns for the infant or mother about food allergies, auto-immune disorders, or Celiac disease, your medical team can run appropriate testing. They can also help with the reintroduction phase and help ensure proper nutrition going forward. 


You might also find a reason to put your pet on an elimination diet and there are support systems for that as well.  Look for holistic vets to help.


Are there any side effects?


There can be the detox discomfort as mentioned earlier for some folks. 

If you experience mild symptoms, be patient.   Letting go of sugar, in particular, can lead to outright withdrawal symptoms.  These will usually resolve in just a few days and then you start to feel better than before.  Side effects most often seen include headaches, rashes, sweating, constipation, diarrhea or fatigue.


If you have multiple known food allergies, a diagnosed or suspected auto-immune disorder or any other serious concerns, be sure to find a practitioner to help!


What about alcohol, coffee and sugar?


These foods cause inflammation.  We know they do.  Each of them is also stressful to the liver, which must break down the waste products generated by them.  Most practitioners recommend avoiding all 3 of these items, and many practitioners recommend avoiding any form of caffeine. 

I agree that most people will benefit most by avoiding these items.  However,  it is up to you to determine how far you are willing to go to reduce inflammation and improve your life.  Start with at least sugar.   If your sanity is at stake, consider going through sugar, coffee and alcohol one at a time, over the course of 3 months.


If you normally drink alcohol or coffee, your liver and kidneys could use the break!  Try using green tea to stave off caffeine headaches and get a much lower dose with L-theanine and other compounds helping to offset the caffeine stimulation.  




What if you aren’t getting results?


  • Be patient
  • Keep a food journal
  • Make sure you aren’t getting exposure hidden in a sauce or other prepared food
  • Broaden eliminated items to include shellfish or other potential problem foods
  • Be honest with yourself, are you being as thorough as possible or did you cheat a little?


Remember, this is your life, your plan and your digestive freedom at stake!  Nobody else really cares if you can eat dairy or not.  It’s up to you.



In conclusion, I hope you are inspired to consider an Elimination Diet to help you identify exactly what foods will work for you and what foods do not work well for you.  There is no right or wrong result, only the one that helps you create health, wellness and enjoyment in your own life. During the Elimination Diet, you have a chance  to use common sense and listen to your body.  Get help when appropriate and be honest with yourself about how you feel during the elimination phase and again when you begin to reintroduce foods.  Keeping a food and mood journal is a helpful tool to keep track of it all.   If you are going to move forward, be sure to do some more research on how to do an elimination diet.  Have recipes lined up before you start.  Advance planning makes the process  go a lot more smoothly.  



Some of my favorite  recipe and how to resources, keep in mind some of these might be generally healthy food blogs and not necessarily meant for an Elimination Diet.  Be sure to use substitutions where appropriate.





Leave a comment