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How An Elimination Diet Can Optimize Your Health & Heal Your Gut

The Effects of Gluten and Going Gluten-Free Dr. Will Cole

It’s easy to take for granted the power that foods have on our health. We go about our busy schedules, grabbing whatever is easiest or available. We then come home, exhausted after a long day, like a ravenous beast, eating anything in sight.

Research estimates (1) that we make around 200 food-related decisions each day. The problem is that most of these food decisions, the researchers found, were made on mindless autopilot. We aren’t consciously aware we’re making most of them.

The truth is, the foods we eat either feed health or disease. There is no neutral meal, no Switzerland food.

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FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE CONSULTATIONS FOR PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD

How do you feel?

Because so many of us are mindlessly eating, we are also not in touch with our body. So pause for a moment and take a breath. How have you felt lately? Your body can be giving you “check engine lights,” warning signs that your health is not working well.

  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Autoimmune issues
  • Fatigue
  • Brain Fog
  • Depression/Anxiety
  • Food cravings
  • Low sex drive
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Swelling
  • Moodiness
  • Difficulty losing weight

If you are struggling with one or more of the following, don’t you want to find out why?

How is food making you feel?

Maybe you are already aware that certain foods don’t agree with your body. You may feel tired, bloated or have stomach issues after you eat.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, foods are impacting how you feel.

Food intolerances are commonly found to trigger or contribute to the symptoms I mentioned above, but how do you know for sure?

There are some amazing food intolerance labs that I run for patients around the world, but one easy and affordable way to uncover your food intolerances is the elimination diet.

In functional medicine, the elimination diet is the gold standard for discovering the foods that don’t agree with you as well as the foods that make you feel awesome. The information you will get from an elimination diet is exactly the information you need to create a sustainable food-as-medicine plan for your life.

What is an elimination diet? It is a process of removing specific foods that are most likely to cause problems. Live without those commonly reactive foods for 8 weeks, and focus instead on eating the highest quality anti-inflammatory whole foods, which are specified in the diet. Don’t worry – you have plenty of delicious options.

After eight weeks, you will reintroduce the foods you have eliminated, one by one, to test yourself for reactivity and symptom recurrence. This will show you exactly which foods don’t work for you (even if they work for someone else), and which foods actually make you feel awesome.

I’ve done the elimination diet myself and saw amazing results in my own health. I discovered increased energy, better digestion, deeper sleep, clearer skin, and I finally felt like myself again after years of struggling with adrenal fatigue.

But while the primary purpose of an elimination diet is to discover your food intolerances, it can do much more for you. If you’re considering doing the elimination diet for yourself, here are 10 benefits you should know about that might surprise you:

14 Benefits of An Elimination Diet

1. You will calm inflammation

Many chronic health problems, from weight gain to fatigue, involve one commonality: inflammation. Because it removes all commonly inflammatory foods, an elimination diet gives your body a chance to calm inflammation. You will be able to feel the difference.

2. You will experience increased energy

Do you have trouble waking up in the morning, feel tired during the day, or get that common (but not normal) energy crash in the afternoon? When inflammation goes down because of your improved anti-inflammatory diet, your brain will begin working better, and you will feel your energy surging back. It’s like a reinvigorating spa day for your insides.

3. You will pinpoint your food intolerances

You may already suspect certain foods don’t agree with you, or maybe you just notice that sometimes you get bloated, fatigued, or experience brain fog after a meal. With the elimination diet, there’s no more second-guessing about which foods make you feel lousy. You’ll find out for sure through the reintroduction process.

4. You will pinpoint your body’s favorite foods

In addition to finding out which foods don’t serve you, you’ll also discover which ones make you feel great. That’s because during the elimination diet you’ll be focusing on the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and with reintroduction you will also discover which foods don’t cause reactions.

5. You will create a customized food plan that works for you

The foods that work best for you may not be right for someone else, and in fact, I’ve seen the healthiest foods heal some people and cause issues in others who simply can’t tolerate them. The elimination diet allows you to know definitively which foods work for your body and which foods do not. Once you have this invaluable intel, you’ll be able to design a food-as-medicine plan that is right for totally unique you.

6. You will begin to heal your gut

“All disease begins in the gut,” Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said thousands of years ago. Today, science is catching up, with research now suggesting that the majority of chronic health problems have at least a level of gut component to them. By removing the top gut damagers and focusing on gut-healing foods, you’ll begin the process of reversing underlying gut problems you may not even know you have, such as leaky gut syndrome.

7. You will give your immune system a boost

Just an inflammatory foods can aggravate your gut, they can also put a damper on your immune system. The anti-inflammatory foods you will enjoy during the elimination diet will do just the opposite, helping to strengthen rather than impede your immunity, which is essential, whether you find yourself often getting run down with colds or you’re struggling with autoimmune problems.

8. You will decrease your intake of processed foods

You know you shouldn’t, and yet, it’s difficult to quit eating processed junk foods that have been formulated to be addictive to your tastebuds. Of course you also know they are mostly, devoid of nutrients and feed health problems of all kinds, so this is your chance to kick them to the curb by jump-starting your commitment to clean eating.

9. You will give your body some (much needed) TLC

An elimination diet is all about self-care, not “dieting.” Dieting in its traditional sense of deprivation for weight loss represents a dead, unsustainable relationship with food. Instead of punishing your body with yet another diet, focus on healing your body with your meals, and that is going to make you feel nurtured and replenished. Rarely have I met someone who consistently loves a food more than they love feeling great. The elimination diet is a chance to give your body a break and nourish it with yummy food medicine.

10. You will become more mindful of the foods you choose to eat

Are you an emotional or compulsive eater? Do your body a favor and end starvation diets and fad diets. Your body exists as a result of a myriad of physiological factors that need to be nourished with good, healthy food. Your body needs those nutrients to function the way it was intended. Purposefully choosing foods that feed your body’s needs and paying attention to the quality, taste, texture, and nourishing energy in each bite will make every meal a Zen experience.

11. You will be eating a variety of filling food

You don’t have to eat like a rabbit and go hungry to eat healthy. The elimination diet is filled with hearty, whole food sources like sweet potato fries in coconut oil and grass-fed steak. You can see a one day meal plan on the elimination diet later in this article.

12. You will be making easy to meals

One common concern about healthy eating is that cooking is going to take forever. However, eating on the elimination diet is very simple. In my video course I even provide a food list and meal plan guide to help you feel confident starting out on your elimination diet.

13. You won't be "dieting"

The word “diet” in our modern culture, has been made synonymous with “dieting,” or restricting foods to lose weight instead of a rational, healthy way of eating. The elimination diet is not about dieting!

We need to ditch dieting and get healthy. Instead of thinking we need to lose weight to get healthy, we need to get healthy to lose weight. If we get healthy, we will look great on accident. A natural by-product of radiant health.

14. You don’t have to count calories or points

Because the elimination diet is not about “dieting,” you eat until you are full! What a wonderfully liberating way to live life! Your body is intelligently designed, listen to it. If you are chewing slowly on filling, nutrient dense foods, your brain will tell your body when it’s full. Simple as that.

What An Elimination Diet Looks Like

What Foods You Can Eat

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about the elimination diet is that they won’t be able to eat any delicious foods. Let’s first go over all the nourishing and delicious foods you can enjoy on the elimination diet:

Organic meat, poultry, and fish

I recommend enjoying lots of wild-caught fish, like salmon and albacore tuna. You will also get your B vitamins from grass-fed beef and clean protein from organic chicken.

Vegetables

Enjoy a variety of different colors, especially green leafy vegetables, bright orange and red vegetables, and starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes. In my mindbodygreen course, I offer lots of great ideas and delicious recipes, so that you don’t dread eating veggies or feel like you’re eating rabbit food.

Fruit

Every type of fruit is allowed on the elimination diet, but I recommend focusing on lower-fructose berries like strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, as well as citrus like lime, lemon, and grapefruit as these have the least natural sugar.

Healthy fats

Cook liberally with natural fats from grass-fed organic meats, like tallow and clarified butter or ghee. I also encourage you to use avocado oil and extra-virgin coconut oil daily, as well as extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle on foods after cooking since olive oil can’t handle higher cooking temperatures.

Grain-free flours 

Cassava, coconut, and plantain flours are great alternatives for baking. I also like arrowroot powder and tapioca starch as thickener alternatives for soups and gravy.

Coconut

Coconut products are all kinds of delicious. My favorite iterations are full-fat coconut milk, coconut butter, and coconut aminos – a great soy alternative.

Natural sweeteners

It’s time to lay off the sugar, but you can still enjoy raw honey, pure maple syrup, and molasses in small amounts, to keep your life sweet.

What Foods You Should Avoid

Now that you know all the great stuff you can eat, you know you won’t be deprived. But just in case you were wondering, these are the foods most likely to cause intolerances and be inflammatory, so these foods are off your shopping list and your plate for the initial stages of the elimination diet:

Refined and artificial sugars

Cutting out sugar probably won’t come as a surprise – but “refined sugar” means more than those white crystals. You should also avoid other supposedly healthier versions of cane sugar, such as turbinado or raw sugar, and even agave. Also forget about artificial sugars – they wreak havoc on your gut bacteria.

Grains

This includes all grains – even the gluten-free ones such as rice, quinoa, oats, and corn. Surprised? The truth is, all grains can be difficult to digest and can be inflammatory for many people. During the reintroduction phase, we’ll add each back one by one to discover if you can tolerate some of them, but that test won’t work until you take them all out for a while.

Dairy and eggs

Taking out eggs and dairy during the elimination phase allows you to rule out an albumin (egg-white protein) or casein (dairy protein) intolerance, which I find is common in people with digestive issues.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds can be rough on some people’s digestion because of their natural roughage. By not eating them in the elimination phase, you’ll give your gastrointestinal system a rest. When your system is calmer, you can try reintroducing them, one type at a time, to get a better insight into whether all, or some particular, nuts and seeds irritate your system.

Nightshades

This is a plant group that includes white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and some spices. These nightshade plants are fine for some people, but for others they can cause inflammation and can even trigger autoimmune spectrum problems. Best to know where you stand!

FODMAPS

FODMAPS is an acronym for the long and almost unpronounceable names of a group of fermentable sugars found in foods like legumes, onions, garlic, dairy products, and fruit. Not everyone has to eliminate this group of foods, but people with digestive issues like IBS should try it for a little while and see how they do. As you heal your gut, these foods – or at least some of them – can typically be brought back in with no problem.

Alcohol and caffeine

Give your liver a break so it can focus on detoxing the rest of you by avoiding all alcohol during this time. I also recommend limiting your caffeine intake to a few cups of green or white tea per day. An occasional organic coffee is OK as well.

What A Typical Day Of Meals Looks Like

Breakfast: A tasty breakfast bowl filled with warm butternut squash, organic turkey bacon, apples, coconut oil, cinnamon, and honey.

Lunch: A salad of field greens with albacore tuna, drizzled with a dressing made from olive oil, honey, and vinegar.

Snack: Whipped sweet potatoes with coconut cream and cinnamon.

Dinner: Rosemary salmon with sauteed vegetables in coconut oil, and sweet potatoes with coconut butter.

Dessert: Dairy-free coconut lime ice cream made with avocados, coconut milk and pure maple syrup. (I’ll be sharing some of my favorite recipes for this protocol in my video course.)

The Reintroduction Phase

After the elimination phase, you’ll slowly bring foods back in over a few weeks while looking out for any flare-ups of symptoms or a decrease in your energy levels. In my mindbodygreen course, I go into much more detail about how to reintroduce foods back into your diet safely, and how to tell which ones are causing reactivities.

Exactly What A One-Day Meal Plan Looks Like On An Elimination Diet

To prove how diverse and delicious eating on the elimination diet can be, let me share with you some photos of a day of real meals on an elimination diet:

  • Pasture-raised pork sausage
  • Organic kale with olive oil and sea salt
  • Fried sweet potatoes in grass-fed ghee (clarified butter)
  • Salad
  • Organic sweet butter lettuce
  • Grass-fed skirt steak
  • Sliced organic avocado
  • Sliced organic cucumber
  • Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Organic blueberries and raspberries
  • Wild caught scallops cooked in organic tallow
  • Steamed rainbow carrots
  • Organic romaine lettuce with oil and vinegar
  • Pasture-raised bacon with Medjool dates

If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our consultation process. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.

Photo: Stocksy

References:

  1. Wansink, B., & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior39(1), 106–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916506295573

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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