So you’re wondering if participating in an Elimination Diet is the right decision for you? Three months now since the start of the most dramatic experience of my own nutrition journey, I can honestly say I would happily do it again! A few quick and dirty details from what I’ve learned: I no longer drink as much caffeine, I no longer eat as much sugar, I find my meals are wayyy more balanced (without even trying), I rarely feel the need to snack between meals (because of this balance), and my alcohol consumption has decreased majorly! Additionally, I am much more in touch with how different things I consume affect my mood, energy, and overall health, and I am more sincerely interested in understanding how to listen to and communicate effectively with my body. But more on each of these topics to follow…
I had a lot of people ask me about the diet as I was going through it, questions regarding what I was eating, how I was feeling, and what exactly was the objective of the experience. I always enjoyed these conversations because talking about the experience as it was happening had a way of reinforcing my motivation to stay focused, and always brought me back to the original intent I had in starting the diet in the first place.
Since it’s obvious now to most people with whom I interact on any kind of regular basis that I no longer follow any kind of strict or specific dietary restrictions, the questions have taken a little bit of a shift. I’ve had a lot of friends and family ask me recently about that original intent, as well as what exactly I took away from the experience that allows me to speak so highly of it. Most impactful, I’ve found, has been the fact that while my dieting habits truly have changed since completing the experience, I have not felt the need to completely restrict myself from enjoying any of life’s greatest offerings in terms of food and drink. Some friends have even asked me to help them to begin the design process for starting their own elimination diet. This makes me the most excited, as I mentioned, I’d love to do it again myself and so I strongly encourage everyone participate in an elimination experience at least once in their lives – regardless if you consider yourself extremely healthy and aware of your body’s reaction to what you consume, or are just looking for a starting point in figuring this all out.
In order to create this “sort-of” guide through my experience, I thought I’d start by breaking down the “why.” Why did I decide to do this, and why do I think it was a good and important decision?
Why the heck did you do this?
I’ve never been a big fan of taking medicine, because I have always truly believed there should be, and probably is a natural remedy for most things that ail us as humans. (Truthfully, this was sparked after a bad experience with an antibiotic I was allergic to as a kid, but I digress…). After all, we are just animals, so why shouldn’t we fuel our bodies similarly? While I am thankful for the cures to diseases and illnesses that exist, I have always felt strongly that I could be doing more to prevent my body from feeling the need to take chemically engineered drugs in the first place.
When I first graduated college, I was under an extreme amount of stress (as most recent college grads are), and I found myself visiting doctors who would test me for a slew of crazy-scary things including crohn’s disease, and celiacs. Thankfully my tests always came back negative, however these experiences led me to really start to question why I was visiting these doctors in the first place. If I was so “healthy,” why was I having issues with my digestive system which were causing doctors to even consider I might have some kind of more serious issue?
Fast forward a couple of years and my body likely adjusted to the stress of being in the real world, so I felt as if the digestive issues began to subside, when really it was more likely that my system was beginning to learn how to cope with them. And even still, what remained were a random assortment of other “discomforts” that were difficult to link to one another, let alone one specific cause. When I really think about it, the answer to the question of why I ultimately took the plunge of the elimination experience can be summarized with one word: headaches. As of November of 2016, I felt as if for as long as I could remember I’d had at least a headache a day. It might sound as if this has to be some kind of a hyperbole, but the truth is, despite considering myself pretty healthy, including drinking a ton of water throughout each day, I somehow was still chasing off these mysterious painful murmurs in my head whether it be with essential oils, meditation, or often with Motrin and ibuprofen.
If I really was drinking enough water and eating the way my body needed and wanted me to on a regular basis, why did I seem to always have a headache?
As mentioned in my original post on beginning the diet, I was sparked onto the idea by a blogger I followed along with via Instagram. She was influential to me because of how passionate she was about the results she was seeing, but also because I was able to relate to her in other areas of health and wellness, including a rare hormonal syndrome I have had since birth. So I just decided to. I decided this could be something really great for my overall well-being, and I was immediately really excited for the possibility of kind of discovering myself and my body for the first time. I thought, “I’ve never even asked my body what it wants and needs. Who am I to assume I just know?” For someone who has spent the last several years getting in touch with my body physically and spiritually through exercise, yoga, and meditation, it felt it only made sense to connect with myself nutritionally, as well.
How did you know where to start?
The simple answer to this question, and the truth: I didn’t. I had no idea, and it was incredibly overwhelming to try to figure out because the internet is never-ending! I committed to the idea around November of 2016. At this point I was a little over 3 years removed from college, yet still carried a lot of the same habits as my 21-year old self: I drank nearly every night, even if only one glass of wine, and I was no stranger to several desserts in any given day – I don’t mean to suggest that these things are completely wrong, but I knew they weren’t necessarily ideal habits, and I hadn’t even given my body a chance to really communicate with me clearly as to whether or not they were good for me.
So I started to research. I am used to always having something to read for pleasure, so I set aside my typical novel-on-the-train routine, and instead would dedicate any free moment of time I had to reading as much as I could about different elimination experiences. I would even print off articles at my office so that I was guaranteed to have materials for my commute in case the internet from my phone was unavailable. I was 100% dedicated to the idea of completing the diet, but I was admittedly terrified of doing it incorrectly, or worse, putting myself through some kind of hell to not get out of it what I really wanted: clarity and understanding of what I should be consuming for my body’s health and wellness optimization.
While I was learning a lot, the research was still very overwhelming. The biggest takeaway I found overall: there is no right or wrong way to complete an elimination diet. But some of the more useful tips I carried with me throughout my experience included the following:
- Plan, Plan, Plan – I was nervous about a few different things specifically. Firstly, I was afraid I would have no idea what to eat. Secondly, I was afraid by not knowing what to eat, I’d end up not consuming enough food, and my body would miss out on important nutrients. Thirdly, I was afraid I didn’t understand enough about the different varieties of foods out there that I would not really know if what I was eating was appropriately aligned to my restrictions, or not. All of these fears were resolved through planning ahead. I planned everything. EV-RE-THANG! I planned my shopping trips by the day of the week I would make them happen, what meals would be prepared through that trip, and what all ingredients (down to the spices) would be acquired through that trip. I planned what I would eat every single day, of course, but I also planned what snacks would be on deck, just in case I was hungry between meals. I also saved myself from begin stressed over the responsibility of planning, by scheduling out time to plan/research. For example, I started the diet on a Wednesday, but really only had the first three days accounted for at the time that I started, because I knew I’d have free time Friday night to get my weekend in order, and then free time on Sunday to plan for the following week. My advice when it comes to planning: Do what works best for you and your schedule; be realistic, and don’t feel the need to plan lightyears in advance as long as you know you have a few hours in your schedule, and especially if there’s a nearby grocery store. 🙂
- Chill Out – As I mentioned, there is no right or wrong way to do an elimination diet, and so while I was strict to the parameters I set for myself, I was also pretty lenient on the way in which I monitored and altered my progress. I allowed for change throughout my experience, and I wasn’t too hard on myself if I realized I needed to make such a change. I knew it would be a stressful journey if I took it too seriously, so I approached everything as a learning experience. I also knew it would be more expensive than what I was probably used to spending on food, so if I bought something new but ended up not liking it – I didn’t get too torn up about it. I ended up donating quite a few things at the end of the experience, and while I could’ve looked at this as a waste of money, I decided instead to view it as part of the process. I was way happier knowing the food I didn’t want would go to someone else who would eat it, rather than I would have been forcing myself to stomach something I didn’t enjoy, or just throwing it in the trash. Plus, I found out a lot about my tastes, and new ways to prepare foods so that I actually do like them. On a separate note: my taste buds changed A LOT (but more on that later).
- Focus On The Positive – I won’t sugar coat it, it was tough. But much like running a marathon, getting started is always the hardest part. I found the first two or three days were incredibly rough for me because I somewhat threw my body and mind into a total phase of shock, and both had to learn on the go how to adjust to my new lifestyle (one of the hardest things I gave up was caffeine). Thinking back on it now, I know it would have been soooooo easy to give in within that first week (and trust me, I really wanted to), but I realized very quickly not only was I developing a special connection with my body and different internal systems, but I was also developing a special connection with my mind. I was uncovering a will power I didn’t really know I had within me. When I learned to take this as a positive focal point, I felt empowered more than I did anxious, or stressed. By the end of the first week, I was sailing. It was easy. And truthfully, the only other time I struggled was the last couple days before beginning the re-introduction, but I think this was mostly because I was so excited and anxious to see my hard work become fruitful. (As another side note, I wholeheartedly believe it was in part the will power that was developed through this experience that allowed me to finish a kick-ass half marathon, my first ever, only a month later).
- Hold Yourself Accountable – I have always been somewhat of a writer so this was second nature for me, but I found to journal about my experience was something I ended up looking forward to a lot. I knew I would need to write about what I ate each day, and how it made me feel, so I was cognizant about these things enough to reflect on them and be mindful of the experience. I also had the blessing of Brenen participating with me throughout the experience, so it was really motivating to know if I was hitting a wall, I could talk to him about it, or we could brainstorm recipe ideas together or discuss how we were feeling on a regular basis. However you need to do it – holding yourself accountable through any experience is probably one of the most important tasks you can do. The process of reflection was especially special to me because it really added value to the results I took away from the diet – I was able to clearly compare before, during, and after.
So with these ideas in mind, it was around late December that I decided I was pretty much ready…but that I also needed more time. I could have totally started after only a few short weeks of research and planning, but that would have run me into the holidays, and like I said, I was not exactly confident that I would even be able to do the damn thing, so I wanted to set myself up for as much success as possible by avoiding as many temptations as I could. I dedicated myself to another few weeks of learning (went to Shake Shack on Fat Tuesday), and my diet officially started on Wednesday, March 1. I sat up in bed and beamed as bright as I did on Christmas morning declaring, “Today’s the day! Today my diet starts, and my life will forever be changed, I just know it!” And it was precisely this attitude that carried me through the next five to six weeks.
So how did it actually work?
The “not one size fits all” theme is mostly referring to the way in which individuals eliminate foods throughout the experience. The science behind the diet is that it takes about 20-23 days of detox before your body should be considered completely clear of a substance. This of course varies from human to human depending on consumption, body fat, exercise routine, water ingestion, etc. So the strategy is: remove different potential trigger foods from your diet for 20-23 days, and then reintroduce this trigger food slowly, in a controlled amount, monitoring the affects it has on your body, including your mental and emotional state.
A trigger food should/could be anything that could be considered less than natural for a human to digest. Think the Paleo diet, which largely consists of one only eating what would have been consumed during the age in which humans had to literally hunt for their food. If a caveman couldn’t eat it, neither can someone following the Paleo diet…and essentially neither could I during my Elimination Diet. Since there is a large spectrum of what could be considered a trigger food, I found that many online blogs and forums identified the “easy” way to go about the diet would be to break it up into 3-4 rounds of processing. This would be “easier” to some because they wouldn’t have to worry about eliminating so much at once. For example, they might eliminate dairy, eggs, and soy for 3 weeks, re-introduce each for the following 2-3 weeks, then begin again with another round. I never really even considered doing it this way because patience (believe it or not) is not my strongest suit. I decided if I was going to do it, I might as well just go all-in.
So all-in I went, and MY elimination diet removed 11 items from my diet all at once, beginning on Day 1. The list of potential triggers I removed included:
- Tree Nuts (except coconut)
- Artificial Sugar
- Artificial Color
*As a note, I also did everything I could to avoid preservatives, but I didn’t think it fair to assume I completely avoided it since I did eat at restaurants quite a bit. S/o to the NYC health-food scene!
As I alluded to with my Paleo comparison, essentially my diet wound up consisting of about 70% fruits and vegetables, and 30% lean meat.A typical day for me began with overnight gluten-free oatmeal for breakfast, a hearty salad for lunch, and some kind of meat with vegetables for dinner. To see more day by day breakdowns of what I ate, check out some of my posts that carried me through the process back in March.
I practiced this (for the most-part consistent) diet for 21 days, and on day 22, re-introduced the first contender. The order in which we re-introduced each food group was largely impacted by our desires, and less so by much of what research had recommended. But again, no right or wrong. 🙂 First up for me was caffeine (Brenen didn’t give this up), then gluten, then dairy, soy, eggs, and alcohol, and then the artificials, tree nuts, corn, and finally peanuts. Actually, most of what I read recommended doing an order somewhat completely opposite of this. The reason being: you are more likely to have a reaction to some of the more obvious triggers such as gluten and dairy, so it makes more sense to leave them for last, getting the less likely trigger foods out of the way first. All the same, believe me, we got our results. You can also learn more about our takeaways by checking out my after the diet post, which I added back in April.
Life after Eliminating
As I mentioned at the start of this post – my diet really has changed. A lot. I never feel as if I can’t eat certain things, but I know exactly how I could potentially feel if I choose to. I know how my body will respond to almost anything that I give it, solely based on whatever it is that item might be composed of.
So why all the fuss, and why are we still talking about it now? Like I said, for me the goal was to learn. I talk a lot about this stuff – health, wellness, best practices, mindfulness…but I wanted to actually walk the walk. The goal for me was never to change much about my lifestyle, but rather to discover more about what made the most sense for me as a human, to learn more about my body, which is my temple, and to learn more about health in general through the research that went along with my process. To say I achieved these goals would be an understatement. The takeaways from this experience far outweighed the difficulty that came with completing it. If you’re interested, I’ll name a few:
- The headaches? GONE. While it doesn’t feel as if my diet has changed drastically since finishing the elimination experience, it kind of has. No, I didn’t immediately start to completely avoid any one thing, but I am much more mindful about what I consume, when, and how much. Before March, drinking 3-4 cups of coffee a day was normal. Did I need it? Probably not. Do I still need to drink coffee now? No. And because I gave it up for so long, it’s easy to still enjoy a cup every once in a while, however getting away with 4-5 a week was one of most dramatic changes I took away from the diet. Similarly, I eat way less sugar than I ever thought possible. I am just not attracted to it the same way I used to be. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my donuts 🙂 but to be completely honest, their appearance in my diet has diminished a lot. It’s somewhat sad to think about, but at the same time, I know it’s because I truly don’t like eating them anymore as much as I used to. I developed a whole new sense of intuition when it comes to my body, my diet, and my overall feelings, and I know that while a few bites of a donut would be magical, I’d likely end up wasting the second half because nine times out of ten, I simply wouldn’t be interested in finishing it. (Okay, I actually did have 3 donuts this weekend, but they were the first donuts I had in probably the past several weeks. That’s saying a lot from a gal who used to eat at least 2-4 every week!). The same goes with other treats I used to love like peanut MnMs and sour patch kids. I used to always have a bag of one of these treats in my desk drawer or purse, but they’ve now been replaced with fresh fruit, or dark chocolate that would’ve been nearly acceptable during the diet. As I mentioned before, my taste buds underwent a major development. What might have seemed less appetizing than the aforementioned, or even “gross” because of it’s health-factor, has now actually become the types of snacks and foods I am most attracted to for those exact reasons.
- I’ve never slept better! Many people who I’ve spoken with directly about the experience know that the most prominent takeaway for both me and Brenen was the power it had on our sleep. Remember, he didn’t give up caffeine, either. Yet, within just 2-3 days of the detox, we both agreed we’d never experienced such a wonderful, completely full and re-energizing night of sleep. It was truly incredible, and I feel I’ll never really be able to describe it fully with just words. I wouldn’t have even necessarily considered myself a troubled-sleeper before, but even now, I am envious of the sleeps I got during those few weeks of being completely clean.
- The mood of a champion, and the energy of a thousand suns seems realistic enough of a metaphor to summarize my overall aura throughout the process, and even most days now. I think most would agree I am a positive person by nature, but I was on a whole new level during the experience. I already spoke to my confidence increasing, and how the diet contributed to me continuing to work hard toward achieving additional goals, but truly the source was in the process itself. I was cleaning my system of all the crap it didn’t need/want, and as a result, I was functioning all around better! Perhaps, living my best life?
So…all this is great, but how do you know if it’ll be as great for you?
YOUR Elimination Experience?
From one of the many sources I took a page toward preparing for my diet, I think FeedMePhoebe said it best:
“The immune system is a funny beast. When we are consistently eating foods that cause an inflammatory response, it leaves our immune system in a constant state of hyperactivity. The fog of ongoing war makes it harder to pinpoint an acute response to something you’re allergic to; the symptoms aren’t as severe because your baseline “normal” may already include said symptoms.
When you remove these irritants, however, your immune system has a chance to calm and recede. And like any overworked army, once your antibodies have had that rest period, they are that much more capable of attacking invaders with all their might.”
As I have already mentioned (probably too many times), I strongly feel that this experience can be and should be for everyone. If you’ve spoken to me in person about it, you’ve likely experienced my passion for the process firsthand. This is because to me, it’s simple: this is your body we are talking about. At the end of everything, what else can you count on? All of the systems inside a machine depend on the fuel which it uses to operate. That’s why we don’t put milk in the gas tanks of our cars – they weren’t designed to run on milk, so while they might be able to, it probably wouldn’t be the most efficient source of energy for them. The same can be said for me and you. There is a world of deliciousness out there, and it’s often fun to indulge in new and fun foods. I don’t plan to ever stop trying new things. I love eating and drinking and donuts and coffee. But I also love having a deep awareness about how everything I consume contributes to how I sleep at night, how effective of a workout I’m likely the have the next day, where my newest pimple probably came from, and why my hair might not be growing at the rate I want it to. To me, I enjoy being in control of my diet and what comes from the way I eat, rather than feeling as if what I eat is in control of how I feel. Not to mention, I decided if my body truly doesn’t like something enough to make me feel super icky and run-down, I really probably shouldn’t overdo it on that particular thing. And I’m okay with that. Some people I’ve spoken to about the experience will say, “well, I’ll never stop eating whatever I want, whenever I want.” I think that’s great! You shouldn’t, and you don’t have to. The Elimination Diet isn’t necessarily a gateway to alter your intake of certain foods, for me at least, it was simply an opportunity to learn more about the most important thing in my life – the thing that gives me that life in the first place.
Maybe you have some issues in mind already that you’re considering might mean this experience is perfect for you. Maybe you’re not sure of what ails you, but you feel something may be off. Maybe you just want to be brave, and try something new with guaranteed positive results 🙂 Whatever it may be, below is a list of common symptoms which could mean the Elimination Diet is a good challenge to consider. And after all, the best part is there is not a negative outcome. To me, those are the best kind of risks to take.
- Trouble sleeping
- Joint pain/inflammation
- Skin breakouts/rashes
- Bowel changes/pain
- Confusion/lack of focus
- Sinus/respiratory issues
- Digestive issues
- Mood swings
- Weak Immune System
One final note: have fun! If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it (whatever it is)? And if you are having fun, you’ve already won (A mantra no stranger to my middle school days)! Brenen and I were able to enjoy the diet because we tried so many new things! Granted, we had the privilege of exploring some restaurants because NYC luckily has a variety of places that fit the bill, but more often than not, we prepared our own meals.
To be honest, I’ve felt I’ve been on this journey of self-discovery for some time now, but this experience lit a whole new fire I never knew existed. I am already excited for the next adventure of my body and mind…and I SO look forward to those who decide to take a leap of faith and step up to the challenge. Please!!! Ask me questions, pick my brain, and tell me how it goes!!! I love sharing in other’s discoveries and excitement. It’s incredible what you can learn when you listen to your body.