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The Elimination Diet: Finding your Top Trigger Foods

Today, we are demystifying the elimination diet! In three weeks, you can find your key trigger foods that are contributing to your digestive issues. It’s a simple diet that helps you tap into how your body is actually feeling. It was one of the first protocols my naturopath recommended as we started my gut healing journey.

I am sharing my journey of trying every IBS-related diet, and how the elimination diet has given me the most freedom. We’ll also break down why it’s important to find your trigger foods when you are having gut health issues, the basics of the elimination diet, and how you can start it today!

Why a “Healthy” Diet Isn’t Good Enough

If you are like me, you probably grew up eating the typical, North American diet. You could enjoy the flavors of pasta, breads, and ice cream, and it would never hurt your stomach. You may get bloated here or there from just eating too much, but it was never unbearable.

Fast forward to your 20s, and you notice a shift in how you feel after eating those same foods you have eaten your entire life. Bread, pasta, and coffee with creamer doesn’t sit the same way. Maybe you start to become more conscious of your diet, and you start incorporating diverse fibers, fermented foods, and more “healthy” snacks for a balanced diet.

You start to find that even after eating these healthy, good-for-you foods, you are bloating severely after each meal. Your bowel habits have changed, and you’re now constipated every morning. Or maybe, you have to clench your stomach and run to the bathroom after a meal. You are more overcome with nausea after each meal.

This is exactly what happened to me. After returning home from a study abroad trip, any meal I would eat just wouldn’t sit well with me. I began to be consistently bloated (even after eating a salad!), had stomach cramps, brain fog, and low energy.

Fast forward to May 2023, I already tried different IBS-related diets to relieve my digestive discomfort. I tried the low FODMAP diet, the Candida Diet, and for the past year was more or less gluten free, dairy-free, and refined-sugar free. However, I still didn’t feel great day to day. I was having more digestive and mental health issues than ever before. I began to fear food in some way, knowing that whatever I ate, even if it was “healthy”, would hurt my stomach.

Food Intolerances v. Food Allergies

It’s not uncommon that when someone has digestive issues, they immediately think they are allergic to dairy and gluten. However, there is a huge difference in having an allergic reaction to food and an intolerance to certain foods.

A food allergy can be more severe and harmful to your body’s immune system. It typically is developed earlier in life, is lifelong, and life-threatening. Most common food allergies include nuts, soybeans, shellfish, and eggs. After these foods are consumed, your immune system releases a chemical response, like histamine, to protect your body. This results in hives, difficulty breathing, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis.

Bottom line, you would know if you were experiencing an allergic reaction.

Food intolerances are not as severe as a food allergy. It does not trigger an immune response and can develop at any point in your life. It can be related to a food group, certain compounds in foods, or food additives, and typically creates digestive discomfort, headaches, brain fog, and skin issues like acne and eczema.

It typically is not life-threatening, but overtime can create prolonged inflammation in your body. This can lead to further issues, like IBS, leaky-gut, and autoimmune diseases.

Celiac disease sits in its own category. It’s the genetic inability to digest and process gluten. It is categorized as an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells after gluten is consumed, thinking it’s a pathogen. It is way more severe than a “gluten-intolerance” and is genetic. I recommend standard blood work to find if you have the genetic marker for celiac, because if so, your path towards healing will look completely different.

When talking about the elimination diet, I am referring to the second group above: Food Intolerances. This causes many digestive issues for people, and usually is triggered later in life. So even if you spent most of your life consuming these food groups, over time you start to become intolerant to them. They can then trigger various digestive issues, including IBS flare-ups.

How to Start the Elimination Diet Today

When I started working with a naturopathic doctor, she helped me discover the elimination diet. And I have to admit, it is one of the simplest diets I have tried on my gut health journey yet! Over the course of three weeks, you will determine which of the six common food triggers need to be eliminated from your diet, to help your digestive system.

This diet tests the most problematic food groups for those with digestive issues:

  • Dairy

  • Corn

  • Soy

  • Gluten

  • Eggs

  • Citrus

For the next three weeks, you will test one of the above food groups. You will eat 2-3 servings of one trigger food (i.e., 100% whole wheat bread, tofu, Greek yogurt, etc.) in a day. After testing it, you won’t consume it for the next three days.

Over the next three days after challenging the food, you will take note of any symptoms you have. Some common reactions are:

  • Skin flare-ups: Worsening of the skin, including acne, eczema, or rashes.

  • Bowel changes: Constipation or diarrhea

  • Acid reflux

  • Bloating after consumption of the food or for the next 3 days

  • Join pain or body aches

  • Headaches or migraines

I recommend keeping a food diary while doing the elimination diet. Write down the date, the food you challenged, how you challenged it, and what your symptoms were. It will help you be more in tune with how your body is feeling after testing that food.

If you have symptoms, wait about three days after your symptoms end to challenge the next food. You will then want to remove this food from your diet.

If you do not have symptoms, wait three days after challenging a food to challenge another food. You can also continue to eat this food if you are sure you didn’t have any symptoms!

I have a sample meal plan for the elimination diet linked here! It was something that was helpful for me as I looked at what to eat for the duration of the diet.

If Everything Constantly Hurts your Stomach

When you are in the thick of your gut issues, it can be difficult to understand your food triggers. When I was doing the elimination diet, I was already dealing with severe constipation and bloating daily. So, if I was still bloated or constipated after challenging a food, it was difficult to determine if that particular food was causing it, or if it was just my general gut issues.

That is why being in tune with your body through a food diary was extremely helpful for me. When you take the time to write down your meals, examine your immediate symptoms, and your symptoms the following days, it is easier to determine which food triggered your symptoms.

Also, if I had a feeling that a certain food would be a trigger, I would cut it out while challenging other foods. For example, I had a feeling gluten and dairy could be my top food triggers. So, I cut those foods out completely when testing the other food groups. That way, I could pinpoint the exact food that was leading to my digestive issues.

I also got some of my food triggers wrong in the beginning. The first thing I tested was corn. I ate regular corn off the cob with my meals and snacked with corn tortilla chips. After dinner I struggled with my usual nausea and the next day I had my usual constipation, bloating, and brain fog. But I thought it was just my daily gut issues.

I thought corn was in the clear for me. A week later, I had chips and salsa with corn tortilla chips and immediately flared-up. I knew in that moment; corn was a trigger.

If you are unsure a food caused a digestive flare-up, I would recommend removing it for a week after you test it, and don’t challenge anything else in the meantime. After a week, try it again. If you experience any digestive, skin, or mental issues, then it’s a sign to remove it from your diet.

Finding Freedom in the Elimination Diet

Before starting the elimination diet, I had a feeling certain foods were contributing to my digestive issues. But I was also terrified to be gluten or dairy free the rest of my life. I live in NYC and love to travel, so dining out is one of the things which brings me the most joy. I didn’t want to live my life in a compromised, diet-restrictive state.

So, for three years, I jumped from one diet to the next. I was gluten-free and dairy-free like 80% of the time and only when it was convenient. When the weekend rolled around, I would reach for the charcuterie board, the ice cream, the alcohol. And the next week I would have to “reset” my gut.

I was less likely to stick to a consistent diet because I didn’t understand the root issues of my digestive issues. The constant back and forth between reaching for inflammatory foods and trying to “fix” it over the week with fermented foods and diverse fibers dysregulated my digestive system. It didn’t allow my body the proper time to heal.

Once realizing my problem was rooted in inconsistency, the elimination diet became easy for me. It has given me more freedom when I dine out and travel. Understanding the key food groups that create inflammatory responses, like bloating, has enabled me to choose foods which help me; not hurt me.

I also understand it's not permanent. I don’t have to remove these food triggers for the rest of my life: It is just a chapter of the life I am in.

When you look at the long game of your healing journey, it puts a lot into perspective. When I think about the last three years, those were three years of inconsistency. Jumping from one fad diet to the next, I wasn’t giving my body the proper support to heal itself.

If you can zero in on your health goals, remove key trigger foods for the next year or so and be consistent with the elimination diet in this phase of healing, then I promise you can go on to live a happier and healthier life soon. It's better to sacrifice that time now, then more health issues later on.

The Steps After the Elimination Diet

During my elimination diet, I discovered corn, gluten, dairy, and soy were key food triggers for me. Since removing them from my diet in July 2023, my symptoms have greatly improved.

I won’t say every day is perfect. There are times I will have a meal without any of my food triggers, and I have a digestive flare up. However, it is way less severe than it used to be.

When you are more in tune with your physical body, you pick up on cues signaling that something may be off. After removing gluten, dairy, soy, and corn, I still struggled with nausea pretty heavily. I found this to be especially true after eating cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, and carbohydrate-dense meals like rice and gluten-free pasta.

You may find that after finishing the elimination diet with the six main food groups, you need to test other foods or food compounds that are contributing to your digestive issues. For example, I found that high-fibrous foods were making my digestive issues worse.

I experimented with the quantity of cruciferous vegetables and rice. I discovered that I could consume small amounts of broccoli and cauliflower (cooked, never raw) but kale was out of the question. Rice, of any quantity, would give me the worse stomach cramps so it’s gone from my diet. Quiona has too much fiber, so it’s out, but sweet potatoes make me feel amazing.

You may also find you do not tolerate a high fiber diet super well. Or you may find it's the only thing that keeps your bowels regular! Maybe you need to continue the elimination diet to test onion and garlic, which is a common food trigger thanks to the fructans in it.

You can adapt and expand the elimination diet based on other food groups that could be contributing to your gut issues. Everyone is different, so test what makes sense to you! And stay in tune with your body.

It really is trial and error for most people. But I love the elimination diet because it still allowed a ton of freedom in what I ate. Whereas the low FODMAP diet removed dietary staples that the majority of people, even those with IBS, can tolerate! Even the Candida diet removed key nutrients, like carbohydrates, that kept me feeling full and satiated after a meal.

The elimination diet is the most balanced diet that can improve your digestive and mental health, while allowing you to live the life you want to live. While it limits the types of foods you can consume, it unlocks a new path towards healing.

It won’t solve everything, but it is a step in the right direction. There is still a lot of unpacking we have to do on what a diet should look like after the elimination diet, and how your lifestyle and spiritual choices play a role in healing. But we can break that all down in our next blog posts.

I hope this truly helps you on your gut health and healing journey! If you have tried the elimination diet or any other IBS-related diet and want to share your story, please comment below!



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Welcome! If you made it here, you are probably looking for answers on where to begin your wellness journey. I'm Jessica, and I started my gut health journey over 3 years ago. As an avid foodie and wellness enthusiast, I hope to inspire you on your realistic wellness journey.

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