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 it.  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. 

Often times, symptoms can improve dramatically when we identify where our innate immune system is over-reacting to a particular food and creates antibodies designed to protect against the "dangerous" food.  The antibodies that are produced cause inflammation.  The continued exposure to a food that is problematic means continued inflammation.  Eliminating the inflammation-causing food from 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 while 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 such a task, I encourage you to look for functional medicine doctors, nutritionists, herbalists or health coaches for support.

Elimination || Phase 1

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 to the problematic food.  Any antibodies you’ve made to help handle the problem food will have time to clear out of your system when you take a break from it.  Once the antibodies clear, re-exposure to a food you are sensitive to will cause a more dramatic reaction.  Responses might be bloating, gas, rashes, stomach aches or headaches.

Reintroduction || Phase 2

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, one 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 one food and eat an average-sized portion.  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 considering your personal situation will benefit you greatly when deciding a plan. 

Unless you are working with a practitioner on a specific approach for a particular diagnosis, this is your call, your body and your process.  The main point is to be perfectly 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
  • Strongly recommended: keep a food journal
  • Once you have gone through the complete list of foods to reintroduce, you can try any 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 by reintroduce a problem food at a later time.
    • Allow 3-6 months minimum for 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 to find alternate foods to delight you!

Pay Attention to Your Reactions || Phase 3

Keeping a Food Journal: Note what you eat, what is happening and how you feel (i.e. when you're at work, stressed out, day off, etc).  Be specific.  Include things like “low energy in the afternoon,” “itchy arms,” or  hopefully, “felt great after lunch.”  Tracking your sleep patterns and moods are also 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 and positive benefits are well worth it!  I simply drink black or green tea instead.

You might wonder if there is any science behind this concept.  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 in eliminating or managing the symptoms.  You enjoy a much-improved quality of life by identifying your particular triggers and 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 function and 
  • fewer sick days

 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. This includes all refined sugars. 

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.  To help you know where to find hidden gluten, check out Shelley Case's gluten-free list.  She is a top expert on gluten-free living with a very informative site.  Be sure to look over the list before you go shopping. I was surprised to find brewers yeast on it.    

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

  • gluten
  • dairy
  • soy
  • corn
  • eggs

Pending the situation, you might want to also eliminate:

  • 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 experienced with Elimination Diets to help you.

What to expect on an Elimination Diet

Who wouldn't benefit greatly from removing all sugar and processed foods from their life? 

You can expect to feel better on this diet.  Almost everyone who does it sees improved health outcomes.  Some people start feeling better right away and others take a little longer to begin to notice a difference.  Some might even feel worse before they feel better. 

Some people notice signs of withdrawal or detoxing especially during the first 3 days, and especially for those who eat a good amount of sugar.  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 supplements internally and/or add to a bath)
  • Liver supportive herbs: 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 Process

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 cooking some very basic recipes. 

  • Get mentally prepared
  • Make a meal plan and grocery list so you can replace the dairy, gluten, etc as you finish it off
  • Be ready with a cleaned out fridge and refresh your grocery 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 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.   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 with a much lower dose of caffeine offset by L-theanine and other compounds.

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.




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