So many of us suffer from ailments and symptoms that often feel as though there are no answers to. Insomnia, stubborn rashes, brain fog, achy muscles and joints, low energy, hives, constipation, GI pain, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), acne, sinus congestion… no matter how many trips to the doctor’s office we take, or treatments we try, there seems to be no resolution. This can be one of the most frustrating, hope-crushing experiences, and I am all too familiar with it.
At one time I was faced with almost each and every one of those ailments, and the only thing I could do was to look at my diet. When professionals no longer had the answer for me, what I put in my body was the only thing I had control of. This lead me to the food elimination diet. The food elimination diet is not really a diet at all, but a way to pinpoint which foods your body likes, and which ones it doesn’t. Each and every one of us is highly individual with different needs, right down to the very foods that we eat. Some body types thrive on high animal protein diets, and some thrive on a vegan one. Some people can eat gluten all day long, and some cannot even stomach one piece of bread. This is where the food elimination diet comes in.
The food elimination diet is designed to help you discover what diet is best suited for your individual needs – not your friends, not your doctor’s and not even your nutritionist’s. Because in reality, even some healthy foods may not be right for you, and it is up to you to figure out what suites you and what doesn’t. As they say, ” one man’s food is another man’s poison.”
The food elimination diet is the best way to start any health journey, regardless of the condition or symptom. That is why it has become one of the most popular methods utilized by functional medical doctors, registered dieticians, and naturopathic doctors alike. It’s also the basis of many internationally renown healthy books such as Dr. Junger’s Clean cleanse program. Whether you are an insomniac with cystic acne, or someone who is facing an autoimmune condition, this is the place to start. Because until we can be sure our diet is in check, and we are feeding our bodies that food that it needs and likes, our efforts elsewhere are futile. That is why I always start my client’s on the food elimination diet, so that we can create a foundation from which to build upon.
Signs you need to follow an Elimination Diet
- Allergies, both food and environmental
- Gluten sensitivity (which can include the following signs)
- Fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome
- Headaches, migraines, brain fog
- Weight gain or weight loss (unrelated to diet and exercise)
- Digestive issues (IBS, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, cramping, colitis, nausea, acid reflux, ulcerative colitis, gas)
- Skin disorders (acne, cystic acne, psoriasis, eczema, hives, rashes, scleroderma, rosacea, dark circles under eyes, itchy, scaly skin)
- Autoimmune disorders (lupus, arthritis, alopecia, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s, lyme, MS)
- Hormone conditions (PMS, cramps, endometriosis, infertility, irregular or abnormal menstruation)
- Mood disorders (irritability, ADD, ADHD, anxiety, social anxiety, depression, rage, panic attacks)
- Pain, joint pain, muscle pain, whole body aches and pain, arthritis
- Chronic inflammatory conditions
- Food cravings
- Swelling (hands and/or feet)
The Food Elimination Diet Instructions Overview
The elimination diet is designed to target which foods adversely affect the body. This is done by removing all the foods from our diet that are known to cause food allergies, food sensitivities, and to cause disruptions in the digestive process. Each and everyone of us is different, so while I might be able to eat wheat without any issue, it might be the underlying root cause of an inflammatory condition in other. Therefore, by eliminating a range of the most common food allergens, we can pinpoint the foods that directly lead to your symptoms and conditions, whether that may be acne, fatigue, headaches, psoriasis or digestive issues.
The first step is to eliminate all foods on the offenders list (your chosen elimination “diet” – see below). The elimination diet is to be followed for two weeks. No cheating, no sneaking, and no bending of the rules. You will be eating very healthy during these two weeks, staying away from the other unhealthy foods listed. You will also start your supportive supplement program listed below. This program is designed to get the most out of the food elimination diet plan, allowing your body to properly clear foods ingested and eliminate any false reactions.
The second step is identification of sensitivities. After the two weeks are complete, we are going to identify possible food sensitivities. This is done by adding back in each food group, one at a time, for three days. For example, you will add wheat (gluten) back into the diet for three days, eating all you want of pasta, bread, and crackers. Next, after those three days, you will take one day off – going back to the complete elimination diet – gluten-free. This gap is provided to give your body a day to stop reacting (many foods have delayed reactions). You will then take out wheat, and add back in the next offender, say corn. For those next three days you will eat all you want of corn chips, corn tortillas, corn on the cob and popcorn. You will then take one day off, and continue to the next offender, say soy. You will continue this three day, one day cycle until you have added back in all of the foods you have eliminated on the food elimination diet.
During this second step you will keep a food journal, tracking how you feel throughout the day. You will take note of everything from mood, energy levels, digestion, bowel movements, and sleep, to your pre-existing conditions and symptoms. This part is key because it is here that where we are able to identify which foods you are sensitive to, and which ones you are not. You will also continue on your supplement program during this phase.
The third and final step is creating a long-term diet. You will review your food journal and identify which foods are connected to you feeling bad. For example, say you ate a gluten diet for two days and on the third day you noted in your journal that you were bloated, arose feeling tired and that you had a small rash on your skin. Then gluten would be the food offender. We could conclude that you have a gluten sensitivity and therefore should steer clear of gluten from now forward.
Once you have identified your food offenders, take them out of the diet. It is these foods that your body is reacting to, making it important to stop eating them. And remember, these food sensitivities oftentimes cause more damage than you know. Although you may just have a small rash, or slightly upset stomach when eating them, it is likely they are causing internal stress, cellular damage, destruction of your healthy gut bacteria, a weakened immune system, toxicity in the blood and inflammation.
You may have more than one food sensitivity, or you may have none at all. Each body is different and there is no right answer. The good news is that the elimination of these foods may not be forever. By strictly avoiding them for 6 months to 1 year, and by following this intestinal cleanse you may be able to heal the gut and halt the reaction to the particular food.
Foods to Eliminate
There are varying degrees of severity that can be followed on an elimination diet, but for practicality purposes, I suggest only eliminating the largest offenders. If you have an inkling that you may be reactive to the secondary food list, go ahead and include them in the elimination diet as well (this will just prolong the duration of the food elimination diet).
- Nightshades [tomatoes, potatoes (not sweet potatoes or yams), eggplant and peppers – all peppers including chili peppers, habenero, banana, jalapeno, tomatillo, cayenne pepper and paprika (peppercorns, black and white pepper is okay), Goji berries, gooseberries, and ashwagandha.]
Other foods to eliminate
On the elimination diet, it is also important to eliminate other foods/beverages that cause inflammation and irritation to the body. That includes alcohol, processed foods, fried foods, and white sugar. Basically the concept is that we must eat clean during these elimination days to ensure we are getting the most out of the elimination diet. There is no reason to embark on this strict food elimination diet if you are only going to be blowing it by drinking multiple cocktails or glasses of wine at the days end.
A few examples:
- soda (diet and regular)
- frozen dinners
- fast food
- fried food
- anything with an ingredient list you cannot read/understand
Science behind the food elimination diet – allergies and sensitivities
Every time you eat food, the body is designed to digest it by breaking it down into its individual pieces. This takes place in the stomach, small intestine and large intestine (with the assistance of the liver, gallbladder and pancreas). Once the food is broken down into its parts, it is moved through the intestinal lining (absorbed) into the bloodstream where the nutrients are sent to do work. The pieces that are not needed by the body are eliminated via the urine and the bowels.
The problem occurs when the foods that we eat are either not properly digested, or are irritating to the system. In these cases, we define it as either a food allergy (which creates an immune reaction) or a food intolerance/sensitivity.
A food allergy is defined as toxic clinical reaction to food or food additives that invoke a response such as the swelling of the tongue, throat, severe hives, or anaphylatic shock. An allergic reaction occurs when your body identifies food molecules as potentially harmful and toxic. The immune system kicks in, by sending molecules and chemicals (including histamine) to come destroy them. Because these reactions are so severe, you (hopefully) already know if you have one. So the food elimination diet is not necessary geared towards discovering food allergies (although it will), but to discovering food sensitivities.
Food intolerance/sensitivities are different than food allergies in that the body does not have such an acute and severe reaction. Rather than having a full blown attack right after eating the food, the body will react in more sneaky ways. It could be the same day, or it could be revealed the next morning, or next afternoon. The symptoms are less acute and less severe such as bloating, achy joints (exacerbation of arthritis), nagging rash, migraine or acne. In the case of food sensitivities, there are a few reasons behind it.
One case is that your body is not able to properly digest the food like in lactose intolerance. The body doesn’t have the proper enzymes to break down the food, which leads to the rotting of the food itself (which creates toxins in the system). The second way is that you are eating toxic foods, and the body is reacting to those toxins. For example, if you eat processed foods that contain chemical preservatives, artificial colors/sugar, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), binders, MSG (monosodium glutamate), nitrates (in deli meats), your body is simply recognizing the toxins and reacting to them. The final way is that your digestive tract has become compromised, meaning that you suffer from leaky gut – a condition where the intestine becomes permeable (has holes in it), allowing undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream before they are properly broken down. Leaky gut can be the result of parasites, long standing food sensitivities, poor diet, and stress. In any of these circumstances, every time you eat that particular food, the body is highly stressed, inflammation occurs, toxins are created and digestion is impaired.
How the food elimination diet works
The goal of the food elimination diet is to target those food intolerances/sensitivities. It does this by completely clearing the system of the potential and suspected food groups that cause an intolerance in the body. Once the foods have been cleared, the body relaxes, stress is reduced, inflammation decreases, toxins clear and digestion resumes its role. This takes place over the two weeks that we eliminate all of these potential food offenders. Now that the body is happy and off guard, we begin to reintroduce the food offenders. One by one we put them to the test. By eating each one individually, on their own schedule, we are testing to see if we react to them – if they cause an inflammatory, stress-ridden, digestive-impairing response. When the body is faced with these foods, it will either say, “oh yay! I like this food!” or “no way! I hate this food, get it out!!!” If your body approves, you will feel good – no reaction, no symptoms. If your body disapproves, you will feel bad – old symptoms will arise, pain and discomfort will occur.
We will be tracking how we feel in our journal during this trial phase, and based on how we respond, that is how we know what our body likes and what it doesn’t like, revealing our food sensitivities/intolerances.
Supplements to support the Food Elimination Diet
Now that we understand the goal of the food elimination diet, and how we are going to get there, you might wonder if there is a way to ensure its success. Apart from you doing your part (yes, this is the key player here), the addition of a couple key nutrients will help your body along the way. When doing the food elimination diet, it is important that the potential toxic foods are cleared fully from the system. This way we have a completely clean slate, one that will properly react to the foods that we are reintroducing (and not simply reacting to old ones that have yet to leave the system). And the best way to do this is to make sure that we are eliminating our food properly.
Food that comes in, must come out, and hopefully as quickly as possible. If we have old food (like the pasta from last week) still in our system, even though we might not have eaten it for a week, it could still be creating symptoms of rashes, brain fog etc. So we must clear it out, so that we know what foods are causing what symptoms. My favorite way to do this is with aloe juice, a good, yet gentle, fiber supplement, and clay, the ultimate binding tool. Add the following three supplements into your daily regime while on the food elimination diet. This will help keep your bowels normal (1-3 times a day), and the food offenders OUT.
Daily Supplement Regime
1 oz. Aloe Juice (taken in a smoothie, juice, water or plain)
1 scoop G.I Fortify fiber (taken in 8-12 oz. water, smoothie, juice)
* The G.I Fortify is my favorite fiber supplement because it doesn’t just contain psyllium fiber, but also contains key nutrients to help relieve constipation, support cleansing/detox, healthy bacteria in gut, and proper nutrient utilization and absorption. It is very effective, yet gentle, unlike many other fiber supplements.
3 capsules Calcium Bentonite Clay – smectite form (opened in 8-12 oz.smoothie, juice, water)
* Calcium bentonite binds to an array of toxins and pro-inflammatory compounds that are created by undigested, toxic foods. I personally recommend Medi-Clay because it is a safe, clean form that does NOT bind to the vitamins and minerals in the body, unlike other forms of clay. Caution: other forms of clay may expose you to heavy metals because of their highly absorptive and adsorptive nature.
Now that we are on board with the food elimination diet plan, let’s just take one more look at what we are going to be doing. It is best that we are crystal clear before beginning to ensure that we are successful.
Phase One: Food Elimination
Eliminate the primary offenders: wheat, corn, soy, dairy, caffeine. Eliminate all “other” offenders including processed + fried foods, fast foods, packaged foods and junk foods. In addition, eliminate secondary offenders if you suspect they are irritating.
Begin your supplement regime, taking recommended supplements daily for full cleansing.
Duration: 2 weeks
Phase Two: Food Reintroduction/Trial Phase + Journaling
Each food from the primary offender list (and secondary offender list if you’ve included those) are reintroduced one at a time with a break day in between. Journaling of how you feel will occur during this phase. You will be continuing to follow the phase one diet during this time, ONLY including the food that you are testing/trailing.
Continue recommended supplement regime.
Example schedule –
day 1-3: wheat back in diet (still eliminating all other offender foods) + journal
day 4: break (back to phase one diet, eliminating wheat as well) + journal
day 5-7: corn back in diet (still eliminating all other offender foods) + journal
day 8: break (back to phase one diet, eliminating corn as well) + journal
day 9-11: soy back in diet (still eliminating all other offender foods) + journal
day 12: break (back to phase one diet, eliminating soy as well) + journal
Duration: 20 days (if you only eliminating primary offenders), 28 days (if you eliminated secondary offenders also)
Phase Three: Evaluation Phase + Creating a Long-term Diet
The final phase is to review your journal and to reflect back on your experience. Based on how you felt each day after you introduced back in an offender food, decide if this is a food that you are intolerant or sensitive to. You maybe sensitive to more than one food, or none at all. Each person is different.
If you have discovered a food intolerance, continue to eliminate that food from the diet now forward. Then consider following my easy intestinal cleanse program. This will start you on the path of desensitizing yourself to that food, and to restoring your ability to eat it. Plan on avoiding the food for at least 6 months in addition to following the intestinal cleanse.
You can now bring back the foods that you have eliminated from the offenders list…. or alternatively, choose not to. You’ve just been able to clean up your diet, so take this opportunity to make conscious choices about what you are going to eat from now forward. Sticking with the diet has many health promoting benefits, ones that will help prevent disease, and improve energy and vitality.
Questions and Answers
What if I feel fine? Do I still need to do an elimination diet?
The tricky part about this is that many people do not think they have food allergies or sensitivities at all. In fact, if you asked most people, they would say that they feel just fine, when in fact they have low levels of inflammation, irritation and stress. This is because most of us are not in tune with how our body truly feels. So even if you don’t think you are sensitive to foods, following an elimination diet is a worthy challenge to be 100% sure.
Can I cheat during the 2 weeks on the diet? Even just a little bit?
No. I wish the answer could be different, but this is a critical part that must be followed. The complete elimination of the offending foods is imperative to the success of the diet, and if you do not think you can do this at a particular time, hold off. The reason why it is so imperative to follow the rules to a T is because this is the time when the body clears all traces of the foods. We need the body to have a completely clean slate so once the foods are added back in we can really tell which foods are the offenders and which are not.
How can I successfully avoid these foods?
First off, start cooking at home. By cooking at home you will have so much more control over what you eat. It will make this cleanse that much easier because you don’t have to worry about the hidden ingredients in most store-bought, packaged or premade foods.
Shop at the farmer’s markets, almost all foods there are game unless you are avoiding nightshades as well. Just think of your meals as focusing on whole gluten-free grains, wild-caught fish, organic poultry, bison, beef, fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, coconut oil/butter, organic butter/ghee, olives, and sesame oil. Appropriate sugars include molasses, grade B maple syrup, dates, coconut sugar, and stevia.
What are gluten-containing foods?
Gluten-cotaining foods include wheat, wheat germ, seitan (vegan meat-like protein), rye, barley, bulgur, couscous, farina, graham flour, kamut, semolina, bread crumbs, spelt and triticale. Most all breads, pasta, muffins, rolls, pizza crusts, crackers, cereals, pastries, doughs, and bagels contain gluten. Other places gluten resides is soy sauce, salad dressings, teriyaki sauce, fried foods and beer. Go HERE for a more complete list.
What are gluten-free foods?
Gluten-free grains include quinoa, rice, amaranth, buckwheat, oats (must be labeled as GF), millet, teff. There are also gluten-free breads, tortillas, english muffins, cereals and granolas. Go HERE for a more complete list.
I’m addicted to caffeine, how do I cut it out?
Ah, good question. I feel for you. The best way to cut the caffeine is to switch to a caffeine-like substance. My go-tos are Teeccino (a herbal coffee-like blend), Coco Mojo Superfood Powder or Coco Gogo Energy Elixir (cacao plus energizing herbs), Dandy Blend (dandelion tea, tastes like coffee), and these homemade superfood lattes
I see corn on the list, besides whole corn (corn on the cob, popcorn, corn chowder), what else should I avoid?
Corn is in almost ALL packaged foods. Flip that box, bar, or container over and look for ingredients that read: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and corn meal. Check all cereals, food bars, tortillas, packaged and boxed goods. Another one to avoid is polenta.
I see soy on the list, what does that contain?
Soy is in many things just like corn. They are both GMO, genetically modified foods, and are excellent cheap fillers and thickners for processed foods. That means they are in almost all packaged and processed, boxed and frozen foods. The main (and more obvious ones) are soy milk, soy ice cream, soy yogurt, soy creamer, endamame, tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, soy cheese, miso, nama shoyu, soybean oil and less obvious ones are veggie burgers, vegetable oil, tofurkey, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and textured soy protein. Here is a good list.
It looks like everything I typically eat is on the elimination list, what am I to eat?
So glad you asked! The good news is there is so many foods to eat, and you are going to discover them! This is not just about finding out which foods you CANNOT eat, but rather which healthy foods you CAN eat and enjoy! HERE is a great food shopping list to get your wheels turning (although double check for the elimination foods – this was not created for the elimination diet, rather just a healthy eating plan overall). Then check out my resource page that includes a long (very long) list of healthy plant-based food blogs. Utilize them for trying out new recipes. Finally, here is an overview of what your daily food plan might look like.
Eggs and sauteed veggies (omelet or scramble)
Coconut or almond milk yogurt, fresh fruit
Gluten-free granola and almond/coconut milk
Quinoa porridge with nuts/seeds, fresh berries
Green salad with beans, nuts/seeds, avocado, fresh vegetables
Collard green wrap with hummus, sprouts, pumpkin seeds, sundried tomatoes
Spring rolls with mango, black rice, red pepper, avocado and sesame seeds
Zucchini noodles with hemp seed pesto, cilantro, macadamia nut cheese
Cauliflower crust pizza with cashew cheese, artichoke hearts, olives, and an egg
Quinoa pasta primavera
Wild salmon over sauteed greens with garlic, onions and a side of roasted eggplant
Stuffed baked sweet potato with black beans, guacamole, and homemade mole
Thai kelp noodles with almond butter sauce, cilantro, avocado, cucumber, sprouts, free-range chicken
Bison patty wrapped in a collard green topped with homemade ketchup, lettuce, onion with baked sweet potato fries
Free-range egg with salt
Almond butter and apples
Avocado chocolate “pudding”
Cucumber slices with bruschetta
Figs and pumpkin seed butter
Tahini, honey drizzle and GF crackers (Mary’s gone crackers)
Smoothie with bananas, fresh strawberries, vanilla protein powder
What are good dairy-free alternatives, I’m not sure I can live without it… I mean, cheese?!
I am so glad that you have asked. Lucky for us all, there are so many ways to make dairy-like products using coconuts, seeds, and nuts. They are so delicious, you might never want to go back! When I was following the elimination diet and discovered I was lactose-intolerant, I relied on these alternatives for my life. Start with my dairy-free alternative guide for clues on how to make everything dairy-free from milk to ranch dressing to sour cream. Also, check out your local health food store too. There are so many brands that make milks, cheeses, ice creams, and yogurts dairy-free.
If I find out that I have a food sensitivity, do I always have to avoid it?… like, forever?
No, but with a condition…. if you are really good about completely avoiding that food for a minimum of 6 months, (but I would recommend about 1 year), and if you work hard to cleanse and heal the intestine and digestive tract, then there is a really good chance you can desensitize the system.
Now this only holds true for high quality, healthy foods. For example, you should not, and will not be able to eat highly processed, toxic foods that contain chemicals and preservatives without reacting. They are simply bad for you and you should never eat them. But for example (like in my case) you are sensitive/intolerant to dairy and if you follow my direction, you will be able to eat it in smaller quantities in the future. But once you reintroduce the food, ONLY eat high quality versions of that food. That means organic, unprocessed yogurts, kefir, and fermented raw cheeses. And NOT in large quantities. This will ensure that the body does not start to react to the food again. Because remember, your body’s main objective is to protect you from harmful toxic foods. If you start to eat processed, non-organic cheeses, ice creams and milk, then your body will start to react to it again. So stay clean. That also goes for gluten as well. Only organic, sprouted whole wheat breads and crackers, and minimally.