Do you frequently experience unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms following meals? It could mean that you’re one of the estimated 2-20% of people worldwide who suffer from a food intolerance.
Dieticians and doctors have been recommending elimination diets for decades as a method of identifying food sensitivity, but what are they, and how can you develop your own elimination diet plan?
What is an elimination diet?
An elimination diet is an effective method for testing yourself for food sensitivities.
They involve removing particular food types you think might be causing your symptoms — for example eggs, dairy and gluten — from your diet for a short period before reintroducing them one at a time.
Once you’ve been able to identify the food causing the issue, you can either remove it entirely from your diet or restrict how much of that food you consume.
If you suspect you have a food allergy we recommend you only pursue an elimination diet plan under the supervision of your doctor.
Signs you’re suffering from food sensitivity or intolerance
Although food sensitivity can cause a wide range of symptoms the most common affect the gastrointestinal system. They include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bloating or stomach cramps
- Gassiness or passing wind
The good news is that a food intolerance isn’t a life threatening condition in the same way an allergy can be, while they’re possible to control and manage once you’ve identified the cause.
Find out what foods you’re sensitive to within 5 days
Do you think you’re suffering from a food intolerance but want to find out the easy way? You can skip the elimination diet step by purchasing one of our Complete Sensitivity Tests.
Send us a hair sample and we’ll analyse it for 970 potential sensitivities, including food and non-food products. We’ll come back to you in three to five days with your results, while we’ll also include free elimination diet advice and a free food diary template. Once you have your test report you can use it to inform an elimination diet plan.
Our Complete Sensitivity Test is categorised under Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) which includes any therapy that falls outside of mainstream medicine. After receiving your results, we recommend seeking the advice of your GP.
How an elimination diet works
There are two phases to an elimination diet:
1. The elimination phase
Remove the foods you suspect are behind your symptoms, as well as the foods known for causing problems, such as nuts, soy, dairy, gluten, eggs and seafood.
During this time you’re going to be removing lots of important nutrients and minerals contained within these foods, so it’s important the elimination phase only lasts between two and three weeks.
If your symptoms still haven’t been alleviated during the elimination phase you should consult your doctor.
2. The reintroduction phase
If the elimination phase has successfully resolved your symptoms you can then start to slowly reintroduce the foods you removed from your diet.
This should be done one at a time, typically over two to three days, while keeping an eye out for the return of the symptoms you were suffering from previously.
Once you’re satisfied that a reintroduced food group isn’t causing any problems you can move onto the next one. If after reintroducing a food group your symptoms do return, this is a ‘trigger’ food and should be removed from your diet, but continue to reintroduce other foods one-by-one.
In total, the process should last approximately five to six weeks.
What food intolerances can an elimination diet identify?
The vast majority of food sensitivities are caused by the same food groups, so when you’re planning your elimination diet, make sure you’re avoiding the following:
- Dairy products
- Fish and shellfish
- Peanuts and tree nuts
- Legumes (including soy-based products, beans, lentils and peas)
- Nightshades (tomatoes and onion)
- Non-organic beef (that might contain biogenic amines histamine, tyramine, octopamine and phenylethylamine which are known to cause reactions)
- Candy that contains refined sugar, corn syrup, artificial colours and flavours.
In addition to elimination diets that remove the above food types, there are some others that you might consider trying:
- The Low-FODMAPS diet – removes the short-chain carbohydrates (FODMAPS) that some people are unable to digest.
- Rare foods elimination diet – restrict your diet to foods that you rarely eat and are therefore less likely to trigger symptoms.
- Fasting elimination diet – this should only be done after speaking with your doctor as it can be dangerous, and should never be used for children. It involves only drinking water for five days before gradually reintroducing food groups.
Other benefits of an elimination diet plan
The main objective of an elimination diet plan is to identify the food groups causing you uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, but there are a number of other conditions that can be helped with an elimination diet plan:
Reduce symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Affecting between 10 and 15% of the global population, IBS is a very common gut disorder that can be alleviated with an elimination diet plan.
In one study, an elimination diet reduced the symptoms of 150 IBS sufferers by up to 26%.
Significantly reduce symptoms of Eosinophilic Esophagitis
Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE) is a chronic condition where the sufferer experiences inflammation of the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth with the stomach) as a result of allergies. This leads to difficulty swallowing dry and dense foods, increasing the risk of choking.
In a study of 146 EE patients, over 75% of them experienced significantly fewer symptoms and less inflammation after practising an elimination diet.
Reduced symptoms of ADHD
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects 3-5% of all children and adults, but studies have shown that an elimination diet can reduce symptoms.
However, it’s worth noting that children should not follow elimination diets unless supervised by a physician, and the restriction of essential nutrients can lead to the stunting of growth.
Improve skin conditions like eczema
There are lots of different causes of eczema — a group of skin conditions that lead to red, itchy, cracked and inflamed skin — but certain foods can make the symptoms worse.
In a study of 15 eczema sufferers, all but one patient found that an elimination diet reduced symptoms and helped to identify what foods were causing their skin condition to worsen.
Reduce chronic migraines
Chronic migraines are a debilitating condition that affects approximately 2-3 million people in the US and, although the causes of migraines are unclear, studies have shown that an elimination diet can reduce instances of migraines by up to 33%.
Elimination diets don’t come without risk, the main one being that you follow it for too long.
When you remove certain food groups from your diet you’re also removing the important nutrients those foods provide. This means that, if you follow an elimination diet plan for too long, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
This is particularly the case for children as they need many of the nutrients removed as part of an elimination diet for healthy growth. Taking these away, even for a short period of time, can stunt a child’s growth.
What’s more, children are more likely to experience severe reactions to foods after they’ve been reintroduced. This is because their bodies can become extra sensitive to foods after avoiding them.
An elimination diet requires a lot of trial and error, and it can take a number of weeks before you start to feel confident that you’ve identified your trigger food.
Get a food intolerance test today and make the process significantly faster.
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.