Do you sometimes feel off after eating but can’t pin down the cause? Have you wondered if you have food allergies or intolerances but aren’t sure how to find out what they are? A simple blood test can check to see if your body sees 100+ different foods as foreign, creating antibodies in response to perfectly normal foods. This can be a very easy and useful way to identify foods that are creating reactions in your body causing gastrointestinal symptoms, migraines, eczema, or even joint pains.
If you’re up for a challenge, you may also want to consider a food elimination diet. What exactly does that mean? According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), an elimination diet involves avoiding foods you suspect may be giving you trouble to see if your symptoms improve after you go for a certain period of time (usually two to four weeks) without eating these foods. Then the foods are gradually added back in to test your body’s response. Seems pretty straightforward, right? It is—as long as you’re adequately prepared. Here are six important facts to know before starting a food elimination diet.
1. You might want to consult an expert
Unlike your average diet plan, an actual elimination diet should be done with the guidance of a healthcare professional. It may be difficult for you to make connections between food triggers and symptoms on your own, and a doctor or nutritionist can perform the tests required to definitively diagnose allergies and/or sensitivities. That said, many people complete programs like Whole30, which cuts out added sugar, grains, dairy, legumes, and alcohol for weight loss or other health reasons and discover they feel much better when they avoid eating certain foods.
2. You’ll need to go grocery shopping
As mindbodygreen suggests, it’s a good idea to stock up on all the foods you can eat so you’re not starving and/or tempted to “cheat” on your elimination diet. Get plenty of fresh fruit and veggies, and try to avoid heavily processed foods that probably contain potential allergens.
3. You could feel worse before you feel better
You’d think that cutting an offending food from your diet would bring immediate relief, but that’s not usually the case. According to the UW Integrative Medicine Department of Family Medicine, many people notice their symptoms get worse during the first week—and especially the first few days—of an elimination diet. Even though you may be tempted to bail, keep your eyes on the prize and remember that the discomfort is temporary and will be worth it in the end.
4. You may be able to avoid medication
Popping a pill every time you get indigestion may bring short-term relief, but it doesn’t help you figure out what’s causing the problem. As Dave Rakel, MD, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Program, told Self, “Elimination diets are a really useful tool to get to the root of what might be stimulating dysfunction in the body.” He added that, compared to medication, this type of diet is less likely to do long-term damage. Changing the way you eat can help prevent disease (as I write about here), but it may also help treat conditions you didn’t even know were related to diet—no pill required.
5. Reintroduction can be difficult
UW Medicine explains that people who find relief when they stop eating a triggering food often experience unpleasant symptoms like digestive distress and headaches when they start eating that food again. Plan accordingly and give yourself time to reintroduce foods slowly.
6. You’ll learn a lot
Even if you don’t discover a food allergy, paying such close attention to what you eat (and how you feel afterward) is bound to be illuminating. You might discover, for example, that the afternoon coffee you “need” actually makes you feel anxious rather than alert. Or maybe you’ll find that a food you loved when you were younger just doesn’t do it for you anymore. You might even discover a secret love of vegetables (here’s to hoping)!
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.