We all have days when we feel blah…low on energy, unmotivated and in a crummy mood. But when days stretch to weeks and even months and you find yourself constantly fatigued, perhaps with unexplained tummy troubles, sore joints or just a general achy feeling, it could be your diet. Even if you are already eating healthy… One person’s food can be another’s poison. This common saying is extremely relevant to someone suffering from undiagnosed food sensitivities. A food sensitivity is not a true allergic reaction with anaphylaxis, but rather a subtle inflammatory response with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, headaches, achy joints, chronic constipation or diarrhea, digestive discomfort, foggy brain and anxiety.
Undiagnosed digestive problems can be devastating to your health in the long run, with significant side effects such as osteoporosis, hormone imbalances and suppressed immune system. Since 60–70 percent of your immune system lies in your gut, it is no surprise that an impaired digestive system can be the culprit responsible for poor health. Many people report that they feel better after temporarily cutting out top food allergens such as gluten, dairy, soy, corn and eggs.
Why are food sensitivities so common today?
Food sensitivities are on the rise today because our food supply is compromised with nutrient-deficient, processed foods engineered in the lab. Our American diet – with little to no green vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds – no longer resembles the diet of our ancestors and how humans evolved over millions of years.
Poor diet and nutritional deficiencies, coupled with chronic use of antibiotics, painkillers, and stress all contribute to a leaky gut, or a condition where the intestinal barrier has become porous, allowing undigested food particles and infectious agents to enter the bloodstream. The body perceives the foreign molecules as invaders and launches an immune response, which results in chronic inflammation inside your body. As a result, we are bloated, achy and grumpy.
Wheat especially causes problems for a lot of people because it contains a protein called gluten which is hard to digest, resulting in bloating and gas. Also, hybridization increased the gluten content of today’s wheat to the point where it barely resembles its predecessors. We also eat it too often: several servings a day in the form of cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. Soy and corn are the most genetically modified foods in the US so remove them for the duration of the diet to rule out any sensitivities.
Similarly, many people are allergic to the proteins in dairy, especially casein, with symptoms ranging from ear and sinus infections, reflux and digestive issues. Cows today are fed a grain diet full of genetically modified ingredients and growth hormones and antibiotics. Many of my clients feel better after removing dairy from their diets.
What is an elimination diet?
Elimination diet is a 21 day detoxification program where you remove top food allergens from your diet. This will help you identify foods that you are allergic to and remove toxins from your body. The diet will also give your liver a rest from consuming processed foods, unhealthy fats and animal products and, in the process, jumpstart your energy and help you lose weight.
Who is a good candidate for an elimination diet?
Anyone suffering with migraine headaches, autoimmune disorders such as thyroid, eczema and psoriasis, rheumatic arthritis, chronic fatigue, digestive issues such as bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea, skin issues, and allergies.
Also, children with ADHD or undiagnosed attention and focusing issues benefit from having the top allergens removed from their diets.
Although blood tests have come a long way and can be helpful in identifying certain food allergies, the best way to identify food sensitivities is to go on an elimination diet for a period of time, then reintroduce the offending foods one by one and watch for reactions.
How to start an elimination diet
Cut out the following foods:
- gluten (found in wheat, including spelt, kamut, farro and durum; and products like bulgur, semolina, and rye)
- sugar (including honey, maple syrup, and artificial sweeteners)
- nightshade vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers) if you have any symptoms of joint pain, stiffness upon waking, muscle pain and arthritis
- citrus fruit if you have symptoms such as skin rashes, lips swelling, throat/mouth itching
Why three weeks?
Because it takes about 21 days to remove the food’s antibodies from your body, for your immune system to calm down and for you to feel better.
Eliminating these foods means that you will not eat processed, boxed or canned foods for the duration of the three weeks. Removing sugar, coffee and alcohol has a detoxifying effect and will help clear out toxins that are contributing to disrupted sleep and unhappy gut flora.
What will you eat?
Start out by eating simply and treat it like an opportunity to detox your body of toxic, processed foods.
- green, leafy vegetables and root vegetables like carrots, squashes and sweet potatoes
- non-citrus and low-glycemic foods such as berries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches (if in season; if not, buy organic frozen)
- plant protein such as beans (especially mung and adzuki), lentils, hemp and chia seeds, seeds (sunflower and pumpkin)
- clean animal protein such as pastured chicken and turkey, wild fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
- good fats such as avocado, olives, coconut oil and nuts
- gluten-free grains such as millet, brown rice and oats (need to be certified gluten-free because of cross-contamination) and pseudo-cereals such as quinoa, which is a complete protein and alkalizing
- drink lots of water; you can alkalize your water by adding lemon
- absolutely no processed, junk food or anything fried (french fries are cooked in the same oil as breaded chicken)
- protein/granola/health bars, which are loaded with sugar and additives
- processed gluten-free breads, muffins, waffles, etc.
- oats that are not gluten-free certified
- bulk foods that can be cross-contaminated
- sauces, salad dressings and condiments
Here is a sample meal plan
- For breakfast, start with a green smoothie to clear out the gut (blend kale, spinach, collards, ginger, apple, pear, banana, lemon, and parsley). Make a quinoa cereal by cooking quinoa in nondairy milk and top it with some berries and nuts/seeds.
- After a few days add a protein shake; blend greens, berries, pea protein powder, flaxseeds and almond butter or avocado for a rich and satisfying meal replacement.
- For lunch, cook a bean chili, quinoa salad, bean and kale soup since these will last you a few days.
- For dinner, eat a simple meal of grilled salmon/chicken, brown rice and sautéed or steamed veggies.
- Snack on dried fruit, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, frozen berries and cherries.
What to expect in the first few days
You might be feeling lousy during the first few days because your body is detoxing and craving sugar and simple carbohydrates for energy. You might be fatigued , experience headaches and achiness, but it should pass by week 2. Drinking a green smoothie will absorb some of the effects and will ensure that you have proper elimination. Make sure your bowels are moving. If you are constipated, add fiber to your morning smoothie to get things moving.
- Before attempting the diet, clear out your pantry and go shopping for clean, healthy foods. Cooking at home will ensure that you don’t ingest the offending foods and sabotage all your hard work.
- I can’t emphasize how important meal planning is to the success of this diet. Make a big pot of soup, roast a big batch of veggies (beets, butternut squash, carrots), cook some beans and lentils, roast a chicken, make a batch of smoothies and store in the refrigerator to easily put simple meals together.
- This is not a calorie restriction diet, so eat often to keep your blood sugar stable. Carry a small bag of nuts and seeds with you for a quick snack. You should not be hungry on this diet.
- Drink lots of water, eight 8oz glasses daily, to flush out toxins and keep things moving.
- Take this time to try gentle exercise like yoga and walking. Heavy exercise might make you more fatigued.
What happens after 21 days
- Reintroduce one food at a time so that there is no confusion around which food caused a bad reaction. Don’t be tempted to add more than one food at a time, as this is your opportunity to see how you are reacting to certain foods. Keep a journal of your symptoms.
- Eat the reintroduced food three times a day and pay close attention to your body for up to three days to link the food with any adverse reaction.
- There might be delayed reactions, so you want to make sure that you give yourself enough time to look for sensitivity symptoms which may include:
- sore joints
- digestive problems
- bad mood
- brain fog
If you experience any symptoms, remove the offending food from your diet, wait a few days for your immune system to calm down, and introduce another food. By the end of this process you should have a good sense of how your body is reacting to major food allergens. If you are reacting to a specific food(s), remove it from your diet completely and focus on healing your leaky gut with proper diet and supplements.