What is the elimination diet? And how can it help with food sensitivities and intolerances?

It's used to help work out and monitor food intolerances.
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  • We all have different requirements when it comes to our diets - our preferences differ over how much to eat, what to eat, and when to eat.

    But for some people, food sensitivities and food intolerances can mean that following a specific diet is vitally important. There are also different elimination diets – including one specifically for IBS, called the FODMAP diet.

    For many, eating certain food can cause all kind of bodily woes. And when it comes to food intolerances, these are largely related to the gut – from bloating, to gas, to unexplained weight gain or loss. Eating the wrong thing can also sometimes cause problems in other areas of the body. For some people that may mean headaches, acne, rashes, or even mood changes.

    And this is where a food elimination diet can come in useful.

    Put simply, an elimination diet involves eliminating certain foods from your diet, and then slowly reintroducing them to see which ones may be causing the problems in your gut, or perhaps elsewhere.

    Sophie Medlin, dietitian and founder of City Dietitians, explained, “Elimination diets are used by healthcare professionals when it has not been possible to identify the foods that are triggering a patient’s symptoms despite trying all other means.”

    Which foods might you be intolerant to?

    Many types of foods can cause intolerances for people.

    Mostly people will be intolerant, allergic, or sensitive to foods such as:

    • Wheat/gluten
    • Eggs
    • Shellfish
    • Dairy
    • Peanuts
    • Caffeine
    • Soy
    • Lactose (milk products)
    • Natural sugars

    How do I do the elimination diet?

    Firstly, before eliminating any kinds of foods from your diet, or attempting to work out what is causing your intolerance, it is important to consult a doctor, a registered dietitian or nutritionist for support. Secondly, if you suspect an allergy, you should see your doctor immediately. The elimination diet is only recommended for those who suspect an intolerance or sensitivity.

    Getting started with an elimination diet is a process, and takes time and effort to do fully and properly.

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    Also, although it is called a diet, it has nothing to do with weight loss or dropping a few pounds – and instead, everything to do with helping you feel as healthy as possible, and eliminating foods that could be causing painful and irritating symptoms.

    So what is the first step to getting started in an elimination diet?

    Before you start eliminating foods, it can be helpful to keep a food diary, alongside a symptoms diary, so that you and your nutrition specialist can work out together which foods might be helpful to eliminate. For example, if you seem to get an upset stomach after a meal full of cheese, it may be a food you can cut out.

    MORE: What is the 1,000 calorie meal diet?

    This should be done for a couple of weeks at least, in order to work out a pattern and what you should cut out, to track any intolerances.

    It can also help to start the elimination diet when you know you will have control over what you can eat – e.g when you’re not on holiday, when you are home, and when you won’t be eating out a lot.

    It is also important to make sure that you don’t make any other big lifestyle changes at the same time that you begin an elimination diet. For example, if you start taking supplements on the day you begin the diet, it could skew how you feel and your symptoms, meaning the root cause of your issues may be masked. Keep things as normal as possible, so that you can accurately work out what may be affecting your gut.

    Then, you can start removing foods with the support of a professional.

    “An elimination diet works by removing all the foods that are likely to be causing symptoms and then once symptoms are completely under control; reintroducing them one by one to find out which are triggering the problem,” Sophie said.

    “The things you need to have established are: which foods are not linked to the problem – so you can still eat something and when to reintroduce. Often, people who attempt elimination diets without support end up being scared to try new foods and their restricted diet can lead to deficiencies.”

    For more information on elimination diets, you can also read this book, The Elimination Diet: Discover the Foods That Are Making You Sick and Tired, by Alissa Segersten. Buy it here.

    How long should an elimination diet last?

    If you are embarking on an elimination diet, you should be prepared for it to last for a fair while – maybe up to two months.

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    Dr. Samantha Nazareth, a gastroenterologist in New York told Women’s Health that it can last anywhere from three to eight weeks. She explained that this time frame, “gives the body time to adjust to a new diet and also allows the gut lining—the barrier from what we put into our mouths and the rest of the body—to regenerate.”

    Can I do an elimination diet on my own – or should I get help with it?

    It is very important to seek the advice of a professional – be it a doctor, nutritionist, or dietitian – before you embark on an elimination diet.

    Sophie told w&h, “I would never advise anyone to attempt an elimination diet without supervision from a dietitian.

    “The reason for this is that they require you to be incredible restrictive with your diet for a period of time and this can be harmful to your health if you have particular risk factors or you have a fragile relationship with food. There are many avenues a dietitian will try and many assessments they will make before resorting to an elimination diet.”

    A professional can help you to work out which foods will be best to eliminate and which foods you can keep eating, as they can identify potential irritants.

    They can also help to ensure that you don’t incur any nutritional deficiencies during the time of elimination, to be sure you don’t get too low a levels of calcium or iron, for example.