Diet & Inflammation: What is an Elimination Diet?
An elimination diet may sound like misery and deprivation, but in reality it’s a very powerful tool for healing and self-awareness. In short, you avoid the foods that commonly cause the most inflammation for three weeks, then you reintroduce these foods in a systematic way to see if your body has a negative reaction to them. You learn which foods support your health and which ones do not, and you also experience the connection between diet and mood, energy, and overall health in a very acute way.
Let’s dive deeper to see how this works.
The elimination diet assumes many different names – an exclusion diet, an anti-oligogenic diet (or an oligoantigenic diet), or simply a “reset” in some circles. These terms range from unpleasant-sounding to intimidating, so let’s break it down.
Oligogenic means that a characteristic can be passed on through heredity by a shift in only a couple genes (1). As we learn more about epigenetics, the influence of our environment on genes and heredity, we’ve discovered that diet and lifestyle choices can turn certain genes on and off (2). It’s ground-breaking to think that while you may carry the genes of a condition that has passed through your family for generations, there are certain steps you can take to limit the chances of those genes ever activating! At the same time, your environment can turn more healthful genes on, making them heritable to future generations. That’s powerful stuff!
So, an anti-oligogenic diet aims to limit dietary factors that could contribute to future heritable disease. How can food modulate disease? Think in terms of inflammation.
Food & Inflammation
You may have heard about the inflammatory properties of certain foods and diets in the media. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is touted for being anti-inflammatory in comparison to our Standard American diet (3). Likewise, salmon has more anti-inflammatory properties than french fries. When we discuss inflammation and foods, we’re actually talking about how the nutrients within that food may contribute to chronic inflammation.
Let’s be clear: inflammation isn’t the bad guy. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to damage; an essential part of the healing process. Without inflammation, you cannot repair.
There are certain foods, like fried foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and red meat, that can cause an inflammatory response within our bodies (3,4). Typically, these are foods that we are advised to eat in moderation. In a healthy, balanced body, this would cause a brief increase in inflammation that the body would then deal with and return to balance. The trouble is, very few of us enjoy such balanced health and these pro-inflammatory foods are staples within our American diet. The result is that our bodies end up chronically inflamed in the midst of numerous problematic inputs. With so many fires to fight, we can’t achieve repair and healing (4).
The Elimination Diet
As I mentioned earlier, the elimination diet starts with three weeks of excluding certain foods from the diet. This requires preparation and planning! I do not recommend you jump right into an elimination without taking at least 1 week to slow down and think about how you plan to complete it.
These are the common pro-inflammatory foods that I restrict during the three weeks of exclusion:
This particular plan is based on the Institute of Functional Medicine’s Elimination Diet. As with any food plan, it is customizable to your needs. For example, if you suspect a sensitivity to nuts or legumes, you’d want to exclude those. Or, if you suffer from arthritis or joint pain, I might recommend you try also eliminating nightshades. Nothing is written in stone here, except that you need to make a plan and stick to it for three whole weeks.
After three weeks, we start reintroducing foods one by one. A reintroduction plan looks like this:
It’s common to want to rush the process and taste all the deliciousness that you’ve missed over the last three weeks, but this is where we collect our data. For three weeks you did the hard work of exclusion, but retinroduction is where you learn which of those foods are working for you and which are working against you. This part of the process calls for patience and enhanced self-awareness.
The Gold Standard
The elimination diet is considered the gold standard for determining which foods are causing inflammation in your body. There are many tests out there aimed at determining food sensitivities, or delayed immune reactions to food, but all of the tests have some degree of error associated with them. When it comes to my clients, I like to do a quick elimination when I see signs of inflammation because it is both cost effective and reliable.
Of course, there are times when an elimination is not possible or not helpful. Under those circumstances, I do rely upon testing for my clients. My son, for example, is allergic to green beans, carrots and white potato. I would never in my life have considered excluding those foods from his diet! In his case, testing was a huge factor in his healing process.
Curious to learn more? Check out Part II of the Elimination Diet series where I’ll talk about who can benefit from doing an elimination. Hint: Just about everyone!
1 oligogenic. (n.d.). The Free Dictionary. Retrieved from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/oligogenic
2 Epigenetics: Fundamentals, History, and Examples | What is Epigenetics? (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2017, from http://www.whatisepigenetics.com/fundamentals/
3 Thorburn, A. N., Macia, L., & Mackay, C. R. (2014). Diet, Metabolites, and “Western-Lifestyle” Inflammatory Diseases. Immunity, 40(6), 833–842. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.immuni.2014.05.014
4 Galland, L. (2010). Diet and inflammation. Nutrition in Clinical Practice: Official Publication of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 25(6), 634–640. https://doi.org/10.1177/0884533610385703