How to Prepare for an Elimination Diet

The elimination diet is buzzier and buzzier, as people become aware of foods, like those that contain gluten, and their effects on their bodies. These exercises are invaluable in terms of discovering sensitivities, which exist on a scale of seriousness. The elimination diet is, at its core, a conversation with your body. It’s important to monitor your body and it’s response before, during and after the diet. Whether you plan to delete one food or 100 foods, it’s better to be prepared for the test.

Here, we chat with Carolyn Brown, M.S. R.D., of Foodtrainers, who’s an advocate of the idea that “you can live a healthy life without losing a social life”—which is so crucial when it comes to the elimination diet. She believes that, with diet, her clients can enhance their digestion and improve their alertness/energy and mood. “We see a ton of mood improvement, which is so cool because your gut really is your second brain,” Brown says. “It’s pretty amazing what our bodies can show us happens when they’re not being triggered. We live in this constant level of inflammation, but I think it’s pretty important to listen to what your body’s telling you.”

She advises that, for the benefits an elimination diet to be realized, it’s important to allot three weeks. “After a week and a half, you might feel it, but it doesn’t give you a lot of time for your microflora to rejuvenate,” she explains. “We’re really trying to heal your gut a lot of the time. People see extreme energy boosts and digestion normalized. There can be withdrawal symptoms, like the ‘Paleo flu,’ which can take three days to get through. Things like the removal of sugar, dairy and caffeine can have an impact, and adding more vegetables can distress or discomfort the stomach. But it’s your body adjusting to how you’re eating.”

Eliminate one or two foods at a time

Diets that eliminate a bunch of foods—or, even, 30 foods (like the Whole30 diet)—are, well, ambitious, and, for some, too ambitious. What about a diet that eliminates one or two foods? This approach is more bite-sized, which means that it can be more effective. Start with the foods that have proven the most problematic for people, which, according to Brown, begins with sugar, and then gluten, then dairy and then soy).

The point of the elimination diet is your reaction to the deletion of a food. And it’s an exercise that’s moot if you “cheat” by consuming that food before the end of the diet. Brown’s advice: Approach the elimination diet as a series that can be achieved, food by food, to avoid having to restart the effort.

Brown says, “Whole30 is zero to 60, almost immediately, and it’s not really a way to live. This is about how do we integrate this into your life—not just as a diet for 30 days. I’m not a huge fan of these. It feels so restrictive and leads to a lot of the yo-yo dieting and binge-eating mentality that we can be trained to have. I want people to do it in a way that’s right for them and completely doable.”

An elimination diet as a variation of a whole foods diet

Well, minus a few things (example: wheat, which has gluten). The whole foods diet focuses on foods that, according to Merriam-Webster, are “considered healthy because they are grown naturally, have not been processed and contain no artificial ingredients.” So, yes, there are “whole foods” that contain gluten, etc. But it, too, emphasizes an awareness when it comes to processed/unprocessed foods, so learn to read the label.

“An elimination diet should be considered a sort of whole food diet,” Brown says. “Both avoid additives like BHT, which is in a lot of frozen food and uses the same ingredient that lighter fluid does, which is super terrifying. We should avoid anything with weird initials—the things that are acronyms and seem really strange. Carrageenan is an algae that’s in a lot of milk replacements and it’s another gut-inflammatory ingredient.”

She adds, “Artificial sweeteners are the number-one thing that I cut out, even pre-sugar. It’s poison. Even if there’s an allotted amount that we ‘can’ have, it messes up your gut microflora, increases your sweet tooth, causes an array of digestive issues (including gassiness and bloating), and it does make you hold on to weight. I think soy is probably a big one that people don’t realize sneaks in, maybe into a nutrition bar or a smoothie. Even in ice creams and stuff, soy is used as a binder. It’s just a filler in a lot of things and an added supplement that’s not necessary. Also, food dye is another one. If you’re throwing back Skittles and candy, there are a lot of additives and preservatives.”

Grocery shop for swaps

Dairy has a variety of swaps for a variety of items, from butter and cheese to cream and milk. This is thanks to brands that are working with nuts/oils to create solutions (example: almond milk). Brown is enthusiastic about contributions from pioneers, including Hampton Creek and Kite Hill. “Nut cheeses are getting better and better and better,” she says. “Hampton Creek is making dairy-free mayonnaise as well as egg-free mayonnaise, plus other interesting items, too. And there’s vegan cookie dough and stuff.”

Gluten can be swapped for the wealth of gluten-free products that have become available. Start with the addition of foods such as beans, lentils and quinoa. Then, shop for alternatives for bread that are made with almond flour. (Brown is a fan of almond-flour tortillas.) That said, be cautious when it comes to snacks like gluten-free cookies, because, as Brown reminds, “A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.”

Sugar can be swapped for Stevia, but Brown says, “Fruit is definitely a source of sugar. Fruit does count. If someone is having 10 pieces of fruit, that’s a problem in terms of sugar. But two or three a day is mostly fine for most people. A lot of times, if people want a treat before bed, they have a fruit. Berries are a good go-to because they have less sugar than others.” (The fruits with the least amount of sugar are Asian pears, berries, grapefruits, and papayas. The fruits with the most amount of sugar are bananas, cherries, and mangos.)

Introduce a probiotic into your diet

A problem with the gut and its influence in your system can be at the heart of elimination diets, so probiotics can be part of the answer. Probiotics have the power to boost the health of your gut, and even remedy the problems that were caused by decades of your pre-elimination-diet diet.

“A lot of times these ‘elimination’ foods are just slowly damaging the microflora and, basically, a lot of times they’re completely wiped out,” Brown says. “We’re talking the general American diet and genetics or severe infection. We’re seeing a ton of IBS and IBD and a lot of colon issues. Cutting these things out really helps and, during that time, I put people on probiotics, too. So you’re eliminating and also adding. I recommend fermented foods and other things to boost healing.” She suggests Garden of Life’s RAW probiotics and ReNew Life’s probiotics, as well as the introduction of aids like kefir and kombucha.

Start to focus on what you can eat

Yes, it’s true. An elimination diet is, by definition, about elimination. But it helps to be excited about the new and improved foods that you’re bound to discover. This isn’t about saying “goodbye”—it’s about saying “hello” to better tastes and better habits.

“I really, really highlight all the veggies you can eat,” Brown says. “It’s important to emphasize all of the proteins you can eat, too: fish, chicken and grass-fed beef. Focus on all of the good things you can eat. Healthy fats are a really good thing, and so are avocados, coconut, olive oils, nuts and seeds.”

Socializing will change 

So, what happens when you’re not in control of what you eat and drink for dinner? Socializing is, perhaps, the trickiest part of the elimination diet, especially when you’re out for the evening with your friends at a bar or restaurant. Yes, these occasions are a source of temptation, especially when the healthier orders seem as though they’re afterthoughts on the menu. But you’re goal-oriented. Stick with the basics and be confident. Consult with the waiter about your restrictions; he or she is bound to be accommodating.

“Everyone has their vice that they love, and alcohol can be one of those things,” Brown says. “The ‘being social’ stuff is tough. But there are gluten-free vodkas—Tito’s is a good one—and there’s also tequila, which tends to be pretty safe for people. Go super, super simple with your drinks. People are faced with never having a comfort food again. There’s a feeling like they can’t go to certain events or there’s nothing for them to eat at their mother-in-law’s house. It’s hard, having to make those requests and a lot of those socialization factors. You have to start to feel comfortable asking for things on the side and making those requests at restaurants.”

She also recommends checking out menus and finding something to eat ahead of time. “Ask your friends to make some sacrifices, or you can always order a huge salad with protein and a couple of sides,” Brown adds. “Most restaurants in New York City will try to make it work for you, so don’t be scared to ask the waiter. There’s always a chicken or a fish, like salmon and tuna. Always start with a salad. Also, consider any main vegetable entrée. A lot of times they can make a big, veggie platter. Plus there are soups, but make sure they’re dairy-free.”

Elizabeth Quinn Brown is a writer based in the East Village who accessorizes her (pilates) spandex with wedges. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.