If you’ve read any of my blogs or cookbooks in the past, then you’ve probably seen me say this: There’s no single dietary approach that works for everyone. There’s only the diet that works for you. Everyone has their own unique biology, so trying your buddy’s diet that is so fabulous for them may not work for you.
I get emails all the time from people who read my cookbooks asking about some ingredient – whether they can have it, or why it is in the recipes. My response to the emails is always similar: It depends on your body. You need to take some time to discover how that ingredient affects you.
Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of dietary approaches. I’ve eaten low-fat, low-calorie, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, paleo, paleo low-carb, intermittent fasting and probably a few others, as well. Each approach brought changes – some for the better and some for the worse, but there wasn’t a single dietary plan I followed that left me feeling as fantastic as I do right now.
So what changed? I personalized my diet, discovering which foods nourished and supported my own unique biology, and which didn’t.
While it takes time and some effort to personalize your diet, it can be done. The trick is to strip your diet bare for about 30 days (follow an elimination diet), and then slowly start adding foods back in to see how they affect you.
Step One: Learn to Listen to Your Body
Before you start, it’s important you learn to listen to your body’s signals. Keep a journal of food, activity, and how you feel. It doesn’t need to be complicated – just write everything you consume, write your activity, and note if you feel energized, sleepy, sore, irritable, hungry, cranky, or any other physical or emotional symptoms and feelings. As you do this, you may notice patterns emerge after you eat certain foods.
This journaling does something else, as well. It teaches you to tune into the signals your body is sending. It teaches you physical, mental, and emotional symptoms aren’t just “normal” variations, but that they are messages from your body to you. Listening is the first step.
Step Two: Learn What to Eliminate
In the elimination diet, you’ll be removing foods that may cause reactions. It’s a whole big list, but bear in mind you won’t necessarily need to eliminate all of it forever. Rather, you’ll eliminate it for about 30 days and then slowly add things back in to see what your body tolerates. Here’s a list:
This includes pretty much anything in a bag, box, or package. A partial list:
- Cookies, crackers, chips, and snack foods
- Pasta and pre-made pasta sauces
- Pre-made foods or food mixes, such as Rice-a-Roni
- Fast food
- Baked goods like bread, donuts, cakes, and pies
- Canned pre-made foods like chili, soup, pasta sauce (with the exception of organic broth)
- Foods that have long lists of things you can’t pronounce, such as preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, binders, and emulsifiers
- Protein bars
- Meal replacement shakes
This includes both fermented and non-fermented dairy, including:
- Ice cream
This includes all forms of soy including:
- Soybean oil
All grains including (but not limited to):
All nuts including but not limited to:
- Peanuts (which are actually legumes)
- Pine nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Nut butters
Sugars and Sweeteners
All sugars and sweeteners with the exception of stevia. This is includes but is not limited to:
- Maple syrup
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Rice syrup
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Acesulfame-K (acesulfame potassium)
- Sugar alcohols like erythritol, xylitol, and others
These are fruits and veggies that include:
- Potatoes (white, not sweet)
- Bell peppers
- Chili peppers
- Goji berries
This includes but is not limited to:
- Beans (with the exception of green beans)
- Soybeans and edamame
Industrial Seed Oils and Hydrogenated Fats
This includes but isn’t limited to:
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Vegetable oil
- Peanut oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Grapeseed oil
Gluten is sneaky. It’s obviously in gluten-grains like wheat, barley, rye, and some oats, but it also shows up in unexpected places, like:
- Soy sauce (unless specifically labeled gluten-free)
- Mustards (read labels)
- Soups, sauces, and gravies
- Imitation crab
- Restaurant scrambled eggs and omelets
While you’re in the elimination phase, your best bet is to consume water. Avoid other beverages, including:
- Lite beverages (like Crystal Light)
- Regular and diet soda
- Energy drinks
- Coffee (except decaf)
- Tea (except herbal)
- Alcoholic beverages
Step Three: Plan to Eliminate
Next, it’s time to plan. By nature, I’m not a planner, so this step is not an easy one for me. If you are a planner, however, you’re going to be in heaven! It’s time to get organized.
Stock Your Pantry
Stock your fridge and pantry with the foods you’ll be eating over the next 30 days. While it may vary for you, these are the foods I recommend on an elimination diet.
If you can get seasonal produce, even better! Stock your fridge with veggies, such as:
- Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage
- Root veggies like onions, beets, and carrots
- Other green veggies like asparagus and artichokes
- Sweet potatoes
- Summer and winter squash, including acorn, butternut, zucchini, spaghetti, and patty pan squashes
Stock your fridge and pantry with low-glycemic, organic fruits, such as:
- Berries (except goji, as noted above)
- Lemons and limes
If you can find them, choose organic, pastured sources of animal protein, including:
- Wild-caught fish
- Wild-harvested shellfish and mollusks
- Organ meats
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices will help bring flavor to your foods. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Ginger and ginger root
- Sea salt
Expeller Pressed Oils and Unprocessed Fats
The goal with fats and oils is to find those that aren’t refined through an industrial process. Good choices include:
- Avocado oil
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Extra-virgin coconut oil
- Macadamia oil (expeller pressed)
- Duck fat
Your diet doesn’t have to be flavorless. You can add some of the following flavorings:
- Citrus zest
- Vinegars (with the exception of malt)
- Dijon mustard (read ingredients)
- Mustard powder
- Salsa (check ingredients)
- Coconut milk
- Organic broth (buy canned or make your own)
You can also use seeds, such as:
If possible, remove temptations from your kitchen. If it’s not possible to get rid of all the processed foods, then at least keep them in their own separate spot so you don’t see them and aren’t tempted by them.
Step 4: Enlist Support
Let your family and friends know what you are doing and why. Explain you are working to find a diet that works for you so you can be in good health. Ask them to please not try to tempt you with foods outside of your elimination diet.
Step 5: Eliminate for 30 Days
Once you’re ready, get started. Eat the allowed foods only for a full 30 days. Give yourself that time to truly clear your body of any substances it doesn’t respond well to. Don’t worry about counting calories or macronutrients. Eat when you’re hungry, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and engage in gentle exercise as your body allows.
Step 6: Journal
During the 30 days, keep a journal, noting what you eat and your symptoms. Note positive changes. Please note in the first week or so of the elimination, you may feel a bit worse as the toxins work their way out of your body – although some people notice an immediate change for the better. Stick with it for the full 30 days.
Step 7: Re-introduce Foods One at a Time
After your 30 days, you can start to reintroduce foods and food groups. It’s important to do this one food at a time so you can note how it feels in your body. To reintroduce:
- Choose a single food from one of the eliminated groups, such as cheese.
- Eat a little bit of cheese (an ounce or so). Wait 24 hours, noting any symptoms.
- If you have symptoms, no more cheese (or whatever food it is).
- If you don’t have symptoms, eat a little more of the food at a couple meals.
- Watch for the symptoms again. If you have them, stop – that food isn’t compatible with your body.
- If no symptoms, then try another food from the same group. So if you’re having dairy, try a little yogurt.
- Wait 24 hours. If symptoms, that food group probably isn’t your friend and you’ll want to avoid it.
- If no symptoms, spend the next week trying other foods from the food group and noting any symptoms. If you don’t have any, you can assume that food group is compatible with your body. If you do have symptoms, note which foods from the group cause them and avoid those.
- Repeat after a week or two with the next food group.
Using this process, you’ll gradually get a picture of which foods work with your own unique biology, and you can adapt your diet accordingly.
The 90/10 Principle
Once you’ve got it all dialed in, how different foods and food groups affect your body, you can begin to make healthier choices that will help you attain better health. Once I did that, I started using what I call (and maybe others do, too?) the 90/10 principle. I try to eat cleanly (that is, with foods that don’t affect me) 90 to 95 percent of the time. Occasionally, I may allow myself certain foods, such as a little sucralose, dairy, or an alcoholic beverage. There are some foods, however, that I consider deal-breakers (I never eat them) because they have such a negative effect on my body. Your deal breakers may be different than mine, but mine include:
- Gluten (I have celiac disease)
- Sugars of any kind (I’m super carb-intolerant and the weight just piles on)
- Fast and processed foods
- Grains (same reason – carb intolerance)
The following tips can help you:
- Drink tons of water to flush out toxins.
- Engage in gentle exercise.
- Listen to your body and heed its signals.
- Don’t skip the food/symptoms journal. It’s easy to forget, when you’re feeling well, how poorly you felt before.
- Get plenty of rest and sleep.
- Talk to your primary health care provider before you start any new food or exercise program.
- Have patience with yourself. If you slip, start over.
Remember also that you’re seeking what works for you, here, not for somebody else. You are creating a sustainable, lifetime eating plan that supports and nurtures your good health.
You may find the following links helpful:
- Avoiding Gluten Cross Contamination in the Kitchen – I wrote this for people like me with Celiac disease or a severe gluten sensitivity.
- How I Overcame Chronic Illness (and you can, too) – This is a comprehensive resource for people looking beyond diet to lifestyle and environmental modifications to help create optimal health
- The Hashimoto’s 4-Week Plan – While this is written for people with Hashimoto’s, it’s helpful for anyone suffering from autoimmune disease or chronic illness. It’s a cookbook, but it also contains helpful information about following an elimination diet and making lifestyle modifications for optimal health.
- The Hashimoto’s Cookbook and Action Plan – Another book for people with Hashimoto’s that can help anyone struggling with autoimmune disease.
You’ll also find great recipes on this blog that meet (or can be adapted to meet) a variety of dietary needs.
The process is involved, but well worth it. I hear from a lot of people who follow an elimination diet and reap the benefits of better health, fewer symptoms, and more vitality. This isn’t about weight loss – it’s about creating a healthy environment within your body where you can thrive with the best health possible.
Questions? Leave a comment below or contact me.
photo credit: Braune Champignons via photopin (license)