Elimination diets, a tool generally used for identifying food sensitivities, have become a big part of diet culture. A lot of the time, because they involve removing inflammatory foods, weight loss is a natural result, and that’s exactly why people have latched onto them and have created another opportunity for unsustainability in dieting.
Elimination Diets Should Not Be Long-Term
The thing is, elimination diets are not intended to be long-term or turned into lifestyles. They are overused, and, by definition, short-term tools to help manage health symptoms and discover potential root causes of health issues. You take potential irritants out, allow your body to calm down as symptoms are alleviated, and then reintroduce foods back in, one by one, to determine what’s causing the problem.
Whole30 is probably the most popular elimination diet out there. Full transparency: I have done it, and it taught me a lot about my body, although I do find it too restrictive with a lot of unnecessary rules. More on that another day.
There are two goals that the Whole30 authors lay out: identifying food intolerances, and essentially resetting your taste buds to limit reliance on junk food. This is where things get a little hairy when it comes to diet culture.
Anti-diet culture generally looks down upon identifying anything as junk food, and while I agree to an extent, I believe that it’s really important for us to understand the ingredients that are in our food and make informed decisions about what we’re eating. Some food is truly just made of junk.
Does that mean you can’t enjoy it once in a while if you want to? No! Mindful eating does ask you to eat foods that make you feel good, and naturally these tend to be foods that are healthful and made with whole ingredients, but sometimes a Twinky just does the trick, man. The key is making the decision from an informed perspective.
Anyway, back to Whole30. Most people I talk to don’t follow the program correctly, especially because a properly done Whole30 is more like Whole45 or Whole60 when you factor in the time it takes to reintroduce food categories.
The name is pretty misleading. I often see the folks who use it for weight loss end up going ham on day 31 and the whole point of the program becomes moot. If symptoms come back, you can’t pinpoint why, and any weight you lost is probably going to come back because the program was used as a diet, which we know doesn’t work.
The Low-FODMAP Diet
The Low-FODMAP diet is another elimination diet that’s gone mainstream. This one is typically recommended for those suffering from SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), and removes categories of carbohydrates that may be inflammatory to the body.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone if they didn’t have to do it. It’s restrictive and really not intuitive, and should be done in partnership with a healthcare professional who is familiar with the protocol (whether that’s someone like me, an RD your doctor recommends, or a GI specialist).
Some of the FODMAP categories include prebiotic foods—i.e. foods that feed the probiotics, good bacteria, in your gut. If the diet is done incorrectly and the restriction period goes on for too long, the probiotics in your gut go without the food they need to proliferate, which can ultimately cause even more problems. More on that here.
These are just a couple examples of elimination diets that have become overused and promoted outside of their original purpose.
How I Use an Elimination Diet in My Program
Elimination diets are not intended to be weight-loss tools, but that’s what our culture has framed them as. They do have their time and place—when you want to manage your health through your diet and monitor your body’s reactions to certain foods. Instead, it’s often done because chronic dieters read about it on the internet and since it’s a method they haven’t tried yet, they go for it.
This is not a judgement on chronic dieters! I’ve totally been there. It’s really hard to get out of that mentality and not want to try something that just *might be* the ticket. And with people on social media and bloggers promoting these diets and what worked for them, it’s natural that we’ll want to try it to. But the results are so individual.
In my online course on kicking sugar addiction, I do recommend a four-week elimination diet removing potentially inflammatory foods, as a lot of people are dealing with blood-sugar-related symptoms that are exacerbated by these foods. That doesn’t mean they’re the cause, but the point is to find out!
It’s short-term only, and the goal is to get participants to a place where their symptoms have subsided, and then reintroduce different foods to see how it affects them. They also keep track of their food habits and learn how to make balanced meals that can include these reintroduced foods. This goes back to my emphasis on making informed food decisions. It doesn’t mean you can’t have certain foods ever again (unless you are truly allergic, of course), but it helps you make mindful choices in the future.
Elimination Diets and Eating Disorders
One thing to keep in mind, for those promoting elimination diets and for those interested in trying them, is that if you have a history of an eating disorder, this can be very triggering because of the restrictive nature of these protocols. An elimination diet is most likely NOT helpful.
Health care practitioners must keep in mind that this can be extremely stressful for ED sufferers. Since most people with an ED tend to have digestive issues, suggesting an elimination diet without first exploring other routes (other ways to manage symptoms, the role of stress or mental health, looking at the holistic picture) or offering additional, close support (vs. just handing them a list of foods to avoid) can make things worse and deepen fear around food.
I would not advice those with an active ED to take my program, but have worked with people in recovery as part of their care team (with the okay from their doctor). It’s possible to work through these elimination diets, if medically advised, without slipping into old habits. But it does take a partnership and being able to have agency in your decisions.
Should You Try an Elimination Diet?
That’s the most important question. What is your intention for an elimination diet?
If you’re experiencing distress and suspect there are foods contributing to your symptoms, an elimination diet may be a viable option.
If you’re in the midst of an elimination diet and start to feel overwhelmed, stressed, triggered, preoccupied with food rules, isolated from friends and family—talk to a professional! They will help you determine whether it’s best to stop, adjust the protocol, or provide tips on making it fit more easily into your lifestyle for the time being.
As I mentioned above, if your goal is weight loss, this is not the route to take. Most people benefit from developing their intuition around food instead, paying attention to how foods make them feel, understanding cravings from their root, and taking into account other aspects of their life like sleep, home environment, career satisfaction, social life, etc.
When we step out of dieting and into just focusing on what makes us feel good physically and mentally, changes are going to be far more sustainable.