Elimination Diet – How this food plan can improve health
An elimination food plan (a.k.a. the elimination diet) is one way for doctors to pinpoint a possible cause of a medical problem. This part of a treatment plan takes a methodological approach to improve someone’s health through the removal and reintroduction of certain foods that are found to be problematic in most people.
What Is the Elimination Food Plan?
As the name suggests, this is done by eliminating various foods to see how they impact a patient’s internal systems. Once someone identifies multiple triggers or problem foods, then patients can focus on healing.
Whereas most diet plans are designed to help people lose weight, this particular program is meant to help the body heal itself by identifying possible food triggers that lead to chronic health issues.
The purpose of the elimination diet is to eliminate problematic foods to improve gut health, which in turn will help improve other health conditions. Many people use the elimination food plan to help with chronic gastrointestinal issues, autoimmune issues, and other metabolic problems.
This food plan is not used for people with acute, severe anaphylactic allergies (such as a severe peanut allergy). Those types of foods for those individuals should always be avoided.
Key Factors of the Elimination Food Plan
About 70 percent of the human immune system stems from the gastrointestinal tract, which is why humans have such a diverse mixture of bacteria and microbes that live in the gut. Poor diet, however, can disrupt these natural systems and lead to things like inflammation, sickness or chronic pain. The elimination diet focuses on three different aspects of the body.
- First, the goal of the food plan is to identify problematic foods and remove them.
- Second, it is important to reduce inflammation in the gut from the removal of problematic foods.
- Finally, the food plan is designed to support a healthy microbiome in the intestines
Identifying Food Triggers
To get started on the elimination diet, patients have to understand which foods are allowed and which are not. Usually, the first foods to go are dairy and gluten as these foods are most commonly associated with chronic illness and pain.
Part of the reason that dairy is such an issue for people is because of lactose and/or casein. These are milk sugars and proteins, respectively. Lactose and casein have been widely shown to cause disruptions in our body’s natural digestion. In fact, it’s estimated that between 25 to 90 percent of the human population is lactase-deficient in some respect. Lactase is a chemical enzyme necessary to digest lactose, and people who lack this enzyme may have a problem with dairy foods.
Gluten is another common ingredient that causes problems in digestion. It is a protein found in most grains, especially those that have been processed and most commonly in wheat. Gluten is the sticky protein that keeps bread, cakes and pastries together during and after the baking process. While insensitivity to gluten is not as widely distributed as an intolerance for dairy, it is a common enough food trigger to warrant its removal from someone’s diet, at least during the early stages of an elimination diet.
One common issue that modern Americans face is the fact that they eat too much sugar. Many processed foods are inundated with sweeteners, which can lead to a host of problems as human bodies are not capable of breaking down so much sugar on a regular basis. As such, it’s imperative that people reduce their overall sugar intake when following this diet.
Usually, what happens when food triggers a negative response in the body, it causes inflammation. Inflammation is an immune response that occurs when something foreign invades the body and the immune system doesn’t like it. A normal amount of inflammation indicates a healthy immune system, but constant inflammation creates stress on the body and leads to diseases and medical conditions that are far more serious.
Simply put, if patients can reduce the amount of inflammation, the body can focus more on healing. The effects of inflammation as it pertains to digestive health can lead to both an imbalance of gut bacteria and damage to the lining of the gut (what’s known as “leaky gut.”) This is when the intestinal walls become more porous from inflammation and allow larger food particles to enter the bloodstream. This condition leads to more severe food reactions, which is why it’s imperative that patients remove any triggers or food items that can cause inflammation.
It is impossible to remove all toxicity from our diet and our external environment. This constant bombardment leads to chronic inflammation in the body and puts lot of pressure on the liver and kidneys for detoxification purposes. By reducing the amount of processed food, humans can have an impact and lower toxicity levels and allow the digestive system time to heal and recover.
Regulating the Microbiome
Much of the immune system is associated with the gut, which is why balance of gut flora and inflammation is so important. Too little, too much, or an imbalance of gut bacteria can create problems. The goal of the elimination diet is to help restore this balance so that the gastrointestinal tract stays healthy and maintains equilibrium.
What People Can’t Eat
Dairy and gluten products are the two main foods people eliminate first. However, there are other common food triggers that people should avoid when first starting this plan.
NOTE: we don’t recommend simply eliminating foods without speaking to your doctor first.
- Processed foods
Sometimes, there are variants of these foods that should be avoided. For example, soy products can present as tofu or soy milk and should be omitted in some elimination food plans. Avoiding caffeine, found in tea, coffee and chocolate, is important to the elimination diet as well.
What People Can Eat
There are general guidelines as to what they can eat during the initial phase of the elimination diet.
Phytonutrients are quite simply what the name implies: foods found in plants. Phytonutrients help the body’s digestive system reset naturally. It’s important that people eat a lot of colorful vegetables and leafy greens. One thing to keep in mind is many people crave sugar, which is why so many people naturally opt for eating more fruits than vegetables. Conversely, an elimination food plan has people focus more on vegetables so to prevent excess sugar intake.
To help reduce the body’s toxicity levels, patients must avoid pro-inflammatory chemicals such as pesticides, and synthetic preservatives. Individuals should search for foods that are whole and organic (when possible). In regards to meat, people should seek grass-fed and free-range protein.
No Caloric Restriction
Although many people do lose weight on the elimination food plan, it is not the purpose to lose weight. The point is to identify food triggers that can lead to chronic illness. Therefore, the elimination food plan doesn’t focus on caloric intake. We recommend that people eat until they feel about 80% full and to chew their food completely.
Phase Two: Reintroduction
After eliminating certain foods for a matter of weeks, the next step is to evaluate symptomatic improvement and start a re-introductory phase.
The key is for individuals to reintroduce one food at a time rather than restarting all of the eliminated foods simultaneously. While proceeding through this phase of the food plan, it is important to monitor how you feel to understand each foods impact on symptoms. For most people, it takes, about two days to notice symptoms.
A food diary or chart helps people to keep track of any changes. This helps doctors assess what’s going on inside the digestive tract.
The best way to reintroduce food is to start with items that patients miss the most (as these are usually the most problematic). If there are no changes after reintroducing certain items, then the individual can add a second food and see if any symptoms arise. What’s important is that people continue following the elimination diet during the reintroduction process by adding one food at a time. Otherwise, it would be difficult to determine which is a problematic food if more than one are introduced simultaneously.
It is important to not rush this phase so the individual can focus on symptoms and make note of as many details as possible. Make an appointment at our convenient Nashville Functional & Integrative health office.
University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine. “Elimination Diet.” July 2008. Accessed May 28, 2017. http://www.fammed.wisc.edu/files/webfm-uploads/documents/outreach/im/handout_elimination_diet_patient.pdf