Take a month to figure out what you can and can’t eat.
Do you have trouble with nasal congestion, skin rashes, sleep or energy issues, brain fog or body aches? Have you been told your hormones are suboptimal in any way? Do you have an autoimmune illness, even a “minor” one like rosacea? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you owe it to yourself to discover if food allergies contribute to your symptoms.
Finding out is a fairly simple yet profound adventure that starts like this: Eliminate all the likely suspects in one fell swoop. One clean diet for four weeks. Even if you’re someone who prefers to break big tasks into small packages, don’t. Why? Some foods that can cause an allergic reaction also increase your sensitivity to others. To identify your allergen, foods need to be eliminated together and reintroduced one at a time.
The bad news is that many well-loved foods are frequently found to cause allergies—and we tend to become more sensitive as we age. The good news is that if you pay close attention, you will likely notice that you feel better—and live better—without these foods. The larger issue is that we get so used to feeling bad that we forget what it’s like to feel good. Like a mindfulness retreat, an elimination diet is an exercise in self-discovery. We all know the stomach literally has a mind of its own, so think of this as a gut-fulness meditation retreat. Clean out your cupboards and relish the rules you set for yourself. Do it with a friend or a group to support each other and compare notes.
The most basic and common allergens are also the foods most likely to make you sensitive to other foods not in this group, so the most efficient test is to go four weeks without any of the following:
- Wheat and gluten-containing grains
- Quinoa, oats, soy, and corn—which can be allergens or can be confused with gluten by your immune system
- Milk and dairy products: it’s the casein!
- Legumes, including peanuts
- Beef and chicken—unless you know the source
I think everyone should eliminate excessive sugars and vegetable oils because they can provoke inflammation, which fuels the symptoms you’re watching. Stick with coconut oil, olive oil, and animal fats. (Derived from butter, ghee contains very little casein, if any, and should be fine even if you are allergic to milk.)
You are free to eat other forms of meat (pork, lamb, elk, bison, etc.) and poultry (duck, turkey). Shellfish can be problematic, but the flesh of swimming fish is usually benign. There are very few vegetables on the forbidden list, so enjoy your broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, fresh peas and beans, carrots, celery, jicama, radishes, artichokes, asparagus, and more! Most fruits are good to eat: coconuts, peaches, bananas, plantains, and all sorts of berries. This is a basic Paleo diet and you can find thousands of delicious recipes online and in cookbooks.
Vegetarians are more challenged during an elimination diet. Eggs and nuts (on the Paleo diet) or hemp protein powder can provide protein. There are, of course, small amounts of protein in many vegetables, and four weeks of a low protein diet is safe unless you are pregnant, nursing, or an athlete in training.
If your allergic suspicions are high, or if you get partial but not complete relief with the Paleo diet, you might take other foods off the menu. Likely to be problematic are:
- Nightshade vegetables (potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes)
In this second round you may choose a piecemeal approach, one elimination at a time, or a whole-ball-of-wax approach.
Most people feel better and more energetic after a month on an elimination diet, whether or not they have allergies. But if your health issues don’t improve, food allergies are not your problem or are overshadowed by another factor.
If your health issues do improve with elimination, reintroduce one food at a time, spaced three to seven days apart. Eat lots of the renewed food over three days. If you experience mild symptoms, you may be able to eat that food once or twice a week and be fine. If symptoms are strong, skip that food for six to 12 months, then try again if you really miss the food.
The last food to reintroduce is gluten—because it is most likely to cause other food allergies to flare and is completely unnecessary from a nutritional point of view.
If allergy tests were reliable I would recommend them!
- If a food allergy test identifies allergens, I encourage you to eliminate all those foods and see if it makes a big difference. If it does, your test is reliable. Far more often, though, I find we need to add the foods mentioned in this article to the forbidden list.
- If your food allergy test finds no allergens, your immune system may just be tired of reacting. Any health challenges you face would still be enough reason to test yourself with an elimination diet.
Weird outcomes are not that uncommon!
“My symptoms on reintroducing dairy are much worse than anything I had before the elimination diet. Did the elimination diet make me sicker?”
No, you just gave your body a chance to recover and now it’s telling you with utter clarity what it hoped you would figure out a long time ago.
“No symptoms came back, even when I got to the end and reintroduced gluten!”
OK, this one really is weird, but I have seen it. I encourage these happy people to remain vigilant, and to go back to the Paleo diet with the mildest return of symptoms. Once there, you can experiment with minor variations. Many people are OK with dairy if they stay off grains or off gluten completely. What is true for you?
“Try This Gut-fulness Meditation” by Deborah Gordon, MD was originally published on Spirituality & Health.