You may have heard the term before, but what exactly is an elimination diet? And when do you know it’s right for you?

The simplest explanation is this: An elimination diet is one in which you cut out certain foods for a certain period of time to see how you feel when you’re not eating them, as well as how you feel when you reintroduce them.

Elimination diets are most useful for people experiencing certain health issues like digestive problems, allergies, or other nonspecific symptoms that indicate something’s not right. But they’re also a useful tool for anyone who wants to know exactly how they respond to certain foods.

The foods we eat give us more than just fuel for our bodies. Our gastrointestinal tract (GI) converts every bite of food we put in our mouths into chemical messages as it digests and absorbs. It also has its own nervous system, known as the enteric nervous system, and it’s the site where a majority of our immune cells exist. It is also made up of billions of bacteria that are thought to affect our immune system function.

Gastrointestinal issues have been linked to a number of health problems, including:

  • autoimmune disorders
  • asthma
  • allergies
  • skin problems
  • arthritis
  • certain cardiovascular diseases
  • migraines
  • skin issues

To determine whether your diet is wreaking havoc on your GI tract and causing unwanted problems, an elimination diet can be the easiest, most effective way to find out.

The first step in any elimination diet is to think carefully about how you feel. Make a list of your current symptoms from head to toe. Consider factors like:

  • your usual energy level
  • whether you experience an afternoon slump
  • how you sleep
  • whether you experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation
  • your usual bowel function
  • the condition of your skin (rashes, breakouts, etc.)
  • if your head ever feels “fuzzy”

Step two is to determine what foods you’ll eliminate first. While elimination diets will vary from one person to the next, the most common is to cut out gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fast food, and alcohol for 23 days. It’s important to eliminate food groups for at least three weeks to determine exactly how your body responds. For those with irritable bowel issues, an elimination diet called the FODMAP diet is suggested, but only under the care of a healthcare professional familiar with this diet.

Cutting out gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fast food, and alcohol may seem like an extensive list. And it can be, if you’re accustomed to eating whatever you pick up at drive-thru windows. But with a bit of planning, you can be quite successful.

Soy and its derivatives are added to many prepackaged meals, so you’ll need to read labels carefully. So what can you eat? It varies depending on your specific dietary needs and requirements. Since individual needs vary, you need to determine which foods you may be reacting to, and avoid them during the trial period. In general, people on an elimination diet stick to lean sources of protein, gluten-free grains, and high-quality fats, with the addition of fresh vegetables, fruits, and legumes per individual tolerance and need.

With the recent popularity of gluten-free diets, there are many packaged options available. Remember, however, that filling up on gluten-free crackers, pastas, and breads means you’re still consuming large quantities of refined carbohydrates. It’s best to enjoy these and all treats in moderation.

For some people, the first few days without these staples are difficult. You may notice that you have a low-grade headache, for example. Be sure to drink lots of water, and be very diligent about not eating whatever you’ve decided to eliminate.

After 23 days, choose a single food to reintroduce to your diet; you may add a group or a portion of a group if those foods contain similar compounds. Try eating eggs for breakfast, for example, and then see how you feel. Take two days to fully evaluate how your body responds. If you don’t notice any issues, try adding another eliminated food, again taking two full days to measure your body’s response.

The idea is to pay attention to how you feel after adding these eliminated foods. If you notice that you felt much better when you weren’t eating eggs, for example, it could be a sign that this is a food that causes a problem for you. The more you know about your body’s reaction to certain foods, the better positioned you are to make positive changes.

  • Take about a week before you begin your elimination diet to prepare. Make that list of how you feel now, and include physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Then find recipes that will fit your elimination diet, and be sure you know how to properly prepare the foods you’ll be eating.
  • Go shopping. Set yourself up for success by buying all the ingredients you’ll need for your meals.
  • Prep meals for the week. Do as much as you can early in the day (or even early in the week) to make lunch and dinner preparations fast and easy.
  • Remove temptation. Go through your fridge and cupboards and get rid of foods you’ll be eliminating. Don’t rely on willpower alone!
  • Keep track of your symptoms, mood, and energy levels throughout the process. Remember, an elimination diet is the ultimate self-experiment.