Navigating An Elimination Diet
As you may have seen on social media (I share on Instagram and Twitter, and have just launched a Facebook community page), I embarked last Monday on what I hope to be my last Elimination Diet ever .
Throughout the past month — which has been particularly emotional and stressful as I moved through some lingering newly single mama sadness and worry, and some new, even more devastating curveballs thrown by my ex — I've indulged in stress eating and generally tipped the scale in favor of never-allowed indulgences (such as the frosting incident that you read about here) to cope with the feelings of wanting to crawl out of my skin.
But in a fleeting moment of presence amid the stress and reactive behaviors, I took control again. My soul deserves to be happy, comfortable and calm inside a healthy and loved body, and only I have the power to create that environment for myself.
I made an appointment with a highly recommended and well respected naturopathic integrative doctor in mid-May, and I decided that if I'm going to invest money into her support (of course insurance does not cover her services, but I won't bore you today with the Phoenix Mom Insurance Debacle of 2016), I want to make the appointment as productive, helpful and worth it as possible. That means giving her something to work with.
Knowing this opportunity to work with the right professional is finally on the horizon, and that bringing her as much information as possible about my personal health and well-being is the goal, I began another Elimination Diet.
I have already done this twice in the past twelve months, but each of those times were in response to getting very sick from my digestion and gut issues, and I never came out of the diet properly. The re-introduction phase at the end provides the results, and not taking the time to complete this final phase makes the rest of the effort a waste. The first two times I ran back to naughty food the moment it seemed I was 'in the clear' (meaning I did not get sick when I ate), only to relapse in crippling stomach pain a few months later. Not a sustainable system.
Over the past week, as I begin "take three," or "third time's the charm," as I'm calling it, I've felt less of the panicky, "I'm starving! Help! Emergency!" feelings than I did in the past. The first time that I was forced into an Elimination Diet by a trip to the Emergency Room last year was downright terrifying. I called my sister, a health coach in Australia, around the clock for guidance on what I could put in my ravenous mouth to soothe my freaked out mind. This time, hopefully the final time I ever need to do this, I'm mentally prepared to buckle my seatbelt and stay calmly on the ride. My bad habits over the past month made the first few days of elimination that much harder, because my body was in a more extreme detox mode last week, but I held strong and got through it.
After I posted that the fun began last Monday, some of you asked me exactly what I am doing and how I am doing it, which I'm more than happy to share!
But first, what is an elimination diet and how will it give me and my doctor helpful information? It is not is a fad diet. While it is similar to a cleanse (in its restriction), it's different in its results (you don't just "feel good" at the end, usually meaning feeling skinny or lighter due to a lack of solid food). An Elimination Diet is more medically-driven and does not require buying into anyone else's products, services or philosophies (though you can bet people sell all of the above on the topic!).
It's also not a "diet" in the sense that we usually think of such a thing. Unlike a vegan diet, or vegetarian diet or a Paleo diet, the Elimination Diet is a very temporary engagement that provides insights that are unique to your body, informing what you can eat without repercussion, and should therefore base your lifelong nutritional habits upon. It provides the foundation for the "lifestyle change" so many of us seek, when time after time, a fad diet fails us.
The Elimination Diet involves 3-4 weeks of restriction, with about 2-3 weeks of reintroduction and experimental testing that follows. After the initial three weeks, you begin to regain normalcy in your diet as you test each restricted food or food group by reintroducing them back in one by one. After you re-introduce a food, you wait for two days without introducing anything else and observe and record your body's reaction, paying attention to physical, mental, or emotional signs and symptoms. That means everything from mood, to energy to digestion, sleep, sex drive and bowel habits. Yeah, you get real tuned in to ev-er-y-thing that's going on in your body like never before.
Then the lifelong change is simple: remove the foods or food groups that aggravate your system, and keep the rest in the picture (if you choose to remove other food groups, such as meat or dairy for ethical or environmental reasons, that's great, but this diet is reactive purely to how different foods make our individual bodies feel and work).
An Elimination Diet is not something to try with haphazard commitment because it's extremely hard and it's a waste of restrictive eating if you don't see it through to the end with a proper re-introduction phase (like my first two forays, for example). It's not something trendy to try if you are not experiencing any digestive problems or symptoms. But it is definitely something to do, and take seriously, if you are having any sort of gut troubles.
After being continuously sick with digestive issues for more than a year now (hosting the h. pylori bacteria, combined with high, high stress levels that aggravate those existing symptoms), I'm extremely focused, motivated and excited to do this self-investigative work and get some answers that could change much of my day-to-day struggle, which includes and affects everything in my life from energy, to mood, to stomach pain and digestion issues, to sex drive, to weight control and quality of sleep. I hope to answer once and for all what my body appreciates and needs, and what it does not, and hopefully avoid expensive allergy testing, for now, in the process.
Learning from my attempts in the past, there were two things that I was very careful about this time around:
- Being prepared, and;
- Taking this process in bite-size pieces. For me, that is one week at a time.
I didn't decide on Sunday to begin something like this on Monday. I decided more than a week ahead of time so that I didn't feel an abrupt sense of restriction, and so that I could think about my goals and intentions, outline my guidelines and a menu, and stock the fridge.
It really does require proper preparation to be successful at an Elimination Diet, and taking the time to get ready, both mentally and literally, is important. You want to avoid any moment where you find yourself starving or simply not satiated, with nothing available to eat. Trust me from experience, you will dive off the wagon. But a little prep goes a long way to prevent the dive because there are plenty of things you can eat. Just not the quickie-go-to processed options that we are accustomed to turn to when we don't pay enough attention to the most important function in our life: what we eat.
Being me (overzealously organized when it comes to preparation tasks), I did a ton of research, then typed out a formal game plan. However, my formality is not necessary. The proper research is, but you could scribble a plan and menu down on the back of a napkin, so long as you keep and refer to the napkin throughout the process.
My "formal game plan" consisted of two papers that I posted on our refrigerator for the next three weeks to guide me.
The first outlines the guidelines of my Elimination Diet (i.e. the "rules," I just don't like that word) for quick reference when I'm in the kitchen and thus, near food. When it comes to guidelines on what to eat and what not to eat on an Elimination Diet, you will find a spectrum of suggested paths on the interwebs. I read them all, and forged my own path based on my experience over the past year and the answers I seek now. Since I want to do a once-and-for-all pass at this on a very clean slate, I am taking a very restrictive route. Here are my guidelines:
Elimination Diet Guidelines
Enjoy Indulging In:
- All fruits (except I'm limiting citrus to my AM lemon water)
- All veggies (except nightshades, see below)
- Wild-caught fish, shrimp and organic turkey (my personal habit is meat once per week, seafood twice per week and the rest, plant-based)
- Healthy fats (organic coconut oil every day because it combats h. pylori, avocados, olive oil, etc.)
- Grain-free flours (such as coconut, cassava and plantain)
- Raw honey and dark maple syrup for sweeteners, as needed (I include these minimally, a couple times per week at most)
- 2-4 liters of water per day
- 1/2-1 kombucha per day
- Coconut milk
Don't Touch For Now (re-introduce one-by-one after three weeks):
- Refined and artificial sugars
- ALL grains (even quinoa, rice, oats, corn)
- Dairy or eggs
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes (including beans, lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh)
- Nightshades (eggplant, tomato, tomatillos, white potatoes, bell and hot peppers, pimentos, ground cayenne pepper, paprika, hot sauce, goji berries)
- Caffeine (limit to AM matcha and supplement with herbal tea)
Keep a Journey Journal! Track the following every day: what I eat, my cravings, moods and feelings, energy level, bowel movements, sleep, digestion, joint pain or inflammation, rashes or breakouts, headaches, sinus issues, etc.
The second "formal game plan" paper posted on the refrigerator details my menu for the week. But only one week at a time, because I've learned that approaching the process in digestible pieces (pun intended, I guess) is as important for me as being prepared, so I don't get overwhelmed or bogged down by the whole process. Three weeks fly by in my life when I'm on autopilot and unconscious about the details, but it can feel painfully long when I'm so closely tuned into and conscious of every detail.
What helps me avoid the panic of feeling deprived is to carefully plan a menu that sounds really delicious to me and ensures that I'll feel satiated throughout the week. I grocery shop twice a week to make sure I have everything I need for that week's menu and also to ensure that my ingredients are as fresh as possible (once during the weekend, and once midweek).
The silver lining of my digestive struggles over the past year is that I've played around in the kitchen a lot, learning about and experimenting with whole food ingredients and recipes that I find super yummy. So, during my week of preparation, I spent a lot of time on Pinterest, searching for and choosing recipes that both sounded amazing and fit into the guidelines above (yes, they do exist!). I created a template that I can fill out one week at a time and get excited about.
Here was my Week One Menu:
Finding enough of a variety of fulfilling snacks that fit within my guidelines has been the hardest part, so please, if you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments below.
Ten days in, now, I feel good. I have not slipped up or failed once (except for a tablespoon of ghee on the first day, forgetting that it is technically dairy). As I said, the first few days were hard in that I was experiencing headaches and an upset stomach as my body detoxed the chemicals and sugars and, well, poisons that we eat without thinking about it. But I've settled into a calm, non-reactive, normal state. My preparation has made all the difference, because I'm never starving, and if I am, I eat.
About four days in, I started to have "change fatigue." My daughter began a 4-day stretch of waking up in the middle of the night and staying awake for hours during the night and I've discovered that being overtired is my worst enemy. I rearranged the menu so that I could have meat that night (specifically Misty Knolls Ground Turkey) and feel perhaps a deeper sense of "fullness," and experimented with eggless coconut pancakes (kind of a contradiction if not under this diet because eggs are crucial to hold coconut flour together) for breakfast. Point being, I adjusted within the guidelines and muscled through it, and can now recognize what is going to trigger me to lose control better than I could before.
My mood has been all over the place, but that is due to the fact that I hit a new low with my ex this month, and more specifically, this week. But I settled and resolved the issue and my feelings (in a sad way, but at least it creates peace and mental silence) over the past few days and as I did, I reflected with wonder last night at the timing of all of this. Normally, under such duress, I would have punished myself with food (well, it's really more of a bizarre combination of punishment, numbing and comfort). But I can't do that for these three weeks (which will hopefully set a new behavioral habit and understanding of myself beyond this duration). I am committed to this process, and thus, must show myself only love to get through it all. It's making all the difference in the most profound way.
Once I've completed my re-introduction phase, with my specific results in hand, I will engage my naturopath's advice moving forward and I'll let you know what I learn. But if you have any specific questions about the process, recipes and food, brands I choose, or anything else, please let me know in the comments below and I'll be happy to answer.