Why I Eliminated Almost Everything in My Diet
The ‘elimination diet’ is a tool for identifying causes of bloating, excess farting, diarrhea or other food intolerances
Years of growing gastrointestinal issues you don’t want to know about — increasingly frequent need to go №2 with increasing urgency and lots of uncomfortable bloating and risky farting — grew so frustrating I recently embarked on a draconian, challenging, weeks-long diagnostic food journey.
I stopped eating almost everything.
At the outset, I limited my intake to a wee handful of relatively benign foods, tummy-wise, a mere 27 basic items even counting water, various spices and oils, and a multivitamin.
The experiment, based on a strategy called the elimination diet, involves stripping your food choices down to a spartan level and then gradually reintroducing foods or food groups during a systematic “challenge period.” There’s not a lot of research on the potential benefits of the strategy for any number of conditions you might aim to address, nor on how best to execute it. But studies have suggested an elimination diet can be useful for identifying foods that exacerbate everything from irritable bowel syndrome to ADHD and dermatitis.
“Elimination diets are used to help identify foods that may be related to symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, gas, and other problems,” according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They are meant to be followed for a relatively short period of time, ranging from four to eight weeks.”
Don’t think of it as a diet, though. It’s a temporary, strategic eating plan, a diagnostic tool that can help expose food intolerances, whose effects might range from stomach and bowel disruption to headaches and tiredness, even arthritis, itching and nervousness, health experts say. The elimination diet is not a weight-loss program nor any sort of long-term eating plan.
“This is not a ‘diet’ in the traditional sense, but a way to systematically find out if certain foods are causing symptoms in your body,” writes Barbara Bolen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and health coach.
My study, with a sample size of one, is very unscientific and still in progress after several weeks. But I can report impressive early results:
The elimination diet allowed me to pin down several foods I can enjoy without notable remorse. I’m able to venture out of the house and away from toilets for hours at a go.
Now, before I describe my journey, and before you haul off and restrict your own diet and risk causing other health problems due to lack of proper nutrition, here are the most important things you need to know about all this…
The super important fine print
Science overwhelmingly supports the idea of eating well, choosing a variety of healthy foods, and leaning into important groups like vegetables and whole grains and legumes and away from sugar, processed meats and anything packaged up with lots of ingredients. Rather than a diet, this means a healthy-eating lifestyle.
As a health and science reporter, I am not impressed by most diets or dieting in general, especially any on which someone makes money, and double especially when the suggestion stems from the anecdotal experience via a friend or family member whose insides are not identical to your own. Experts stress that special diets should be reserved for special problems, and undertaken with advice of an expert. I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist. I am not advising anyone to employ the elimination diet without first consulting a physician or other health care professional.
Any highly specialized way of eating packs risk, as do attempts at self-diagnosis. What you think might be a moderate food intolerance could involve other underlying causes (such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease or dangerous food allergies) requiring professional diagnosis and care. Bloating or flatulence can have causes beyond any specific food. A health care provider might also save you a lot of effort and frustration, identifying certain foods that you should eliminate, rather than taking the drastic approach I chose.
I was pretty sure I just needed to find out what to stop ingesting, and I like to experiment on myself (see my articles on the power of breathing, doing lots of push-ups and creatively staying in shape as I age). Even so, I must say that my version of the elimination diet was not fun, nor easy, nor necessarily the right approach for anyone else.
So here’s how it goes…
How to do the elimination diet
The fewer foods and food groups you eliminate, the easier the effort will be. But the more you nix, the greater the chances you’ll figure out what works, and what doesn’t sit well.
“The elimination diet can vary in intensity depending on how many suspected food culprits are being avoided,” according to a really informative patient handout provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
There are many ways to go about the elimination diet, starting with three key steps:
- Make a list of foods you think might cause problems and which you plan to eschew initially. There are helpful lists of potential culprits, which range from carbonated drinks to fried foods, sugar and certain fruits and vegetables. The lists are long. Be specific, and write down the key foods and drinks you plan to avoid. I created a spreadsheet to help me track it all in detail.
- Make a list of what you intend to eat. Again, be very specific, and stick as best you can to things you think don’t bother you. Avoid all processed foods if possible; this way, you can immediately exclude unpronounceable additives that are known to be bad for you. Again, write the list down. I split mine into food groups to help organize the list.
- Keep a daily journal (I know, I know, it’s hard — but if I can journal, you can journal; I hate journaling) to include every item you ingested. Make special notes when you add a food, and document how you feel each day.
Your starting list might need to be way different than mine.
I opted for an aggressive approach, since I’ve never learned anything conclusive by avoiding one food or group at a time. I’m omnivorous. I never drink sweetened sodas anymore, and I plan to consume copious amounts of coffee until the day I die (thankfully, coffee is generally good for most people, even in large quantities, but like almost anything we ingest, it’s not risk-free). Fruits, vegetables, nuts and dairy — longstanding staples of my diet — are among foods that science says can fuel GI issues, so they had to go.
One important asterisk to my plan: I had quit drinking alcohol a few weeks prior to starting the elimination diet. I thought that might solve my GI problems, but it made no difference (though cutting out alcohol was great for my sleep, mood and productivity). I’ve since returned to moderate, non-daily drinking, with the problem under control.
But that’s a story all by itself. So…
My minimalist food list
Here are the 27 things I ingested during the first seven days. Remember, this is not a healthy diet. It’s one guy’s temporary approach to eating aimed at identifying problematic foods.
Grains and other carbs
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
Oils (allowing for the vice of plain potato chips)
- Sunflower oil
- Canola oil
Spices, sweeteners, etc.
- Monk fruit
- Maple syrup
- Sugar (limited)
Plus: a daily multivitamin as insurance against the many important nutrients I would be missing.
*Since milk chocolate was off the table, and I needed a reward for all my efforts, I developed a recipe for no-cook fudge that’s just cacao, coconut oil, monk fruit, salt and vanilla. It’s heavy on the cacao, which is pleasurable and healthful. I’ve put the recipe in the comments section.
Remarkable benefit almost instantly
I felt better within 24 hours, and by mid-week all my GI issues had improved — less tummy gurgling, more normal BMs. While there were some ups and downs, Week 1 was an inspiring success. (Had it been a failure, I would have eliminated all the oils and sweeteners, so I consider myself lucky that I didn’t have to go there.)
The hardest part, and I don’t know if this was a physical reaction or a purely mental fixation : Within a couple of days I was totally jonesing for some fruits and veggies. Apples gleamed alluringly from the fruit bowl. Bananas beckoned. Spinach spoke to me outright, unless perhaps I dreamt that.
Health experts advise going two to four weeks before adding foods to your edibles list. My patience wore too thin for that, so I waited a week between additions, and while I will never know if that was the perfect approach, it has worked for me.
Week 2: Added shrimp and bacon, plus a leafy green I hoped would be safe: spinach, both cooked and raw because the nutrient profiles change, and boy, did I need nutrients. To make a minimalist salad possible, I added squeezed lemons and nature’s gift to humankind: balsamic vinegar. By limiting the number of additions, any new problems would likely owe to the spinach. It did seem to cause a little more gas than in Week 1, but nothing terrible. Later in the week I added zucchini, with no ill effects. So, onward…
Week 3: Added bananas, plus whole wheat (to make dairy-free, yeast-free bread using other existing items on the edibles list). The bread, to dip in olive oil, was a major treat. But bananas elicited a negative reaction, and I haven’t eaten one since. That’s an unfortunate casualty of the experiment, because I love the flavor, nutrient profile and convenience of bananas, but they had to go.
Week 4: Emboldened, I added tomatoes, mushrooms, green onions, carrots and avocados — the makings of a proper salad. My GI tract noticed the additions, but the effects weren’t overly negative, so I’ve continue to eat these items but not go whole hog on any one of them.
You get the idea. In subsequent weeks I made meticulous, incremental additions.
Oops, I got impatient
Week 7: A breakthrough: Added dairy, loading up first on cheese and yogurt, then butter, milk chocolate and ice cream, lots of ice cream. However, amid growing impatience I made a serious process error, reintroducing too many items all at once. The hard cheeses and yogurt seemed benign, but ice cream appeared to trigger some serious gut reactions. But I’m not sure on any of that, so now I have to get meticulous again, eliminate all dairy, give my body a week to reset, then add items one at a time.
I’m also unsure about whether carbonated drinks cause me problems, as I never really eliminated them, and they’re a well-known source of bloating. So I need to cut them out, get back to baseline, and test them properly.
Once I sort out the effects of dairy and carbonation, I’ll move on to a handful of other foods I still wish to test, particularly nuts and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, both known to be gastrointestinal nightmares for some people.
I had spent years trying to figure out what foods bothered me, eliminating this or that for short periods now and then. My wife got really tired of my periodic proclamations that I’d “discovered” what was irritating my bowels, only to flip-flop a few weeks later and blame something else. It became apparent that there might be multiple culprits, that the GI-tract is complicated, and that haphazard experimentation wasn’t helpful.
The elimination diet has helped me identify some foods I’m very comfortable with and some I need to be wary of. I feel a lot better, with the promise of further progress through additional rigorous experimentation.
All that in mind, there’s one food group I’m most concerned about: beans, of course, notorious beans. I plan to leave them to the final week of testing. I don’t think you want to hear how it goes.