Everything You Need To Know About The Elimination Diet + A Meal Plan
Finding the perfect nutrition plan is like dating: It takes time, effort, a lot of trial and error (and sometimes leaves your stomach reeling)—but it's ultimately worth the struggle when you find your match.
In all seriousness, it's essential to take note of the foods you're eating because how you nourish your body has an impact on so many aspects of your health. Just as some foods allow you to feel your best, others may be to blame for bloating, a bad mood, and even headaches or skin flare-ups. Ever notice how processed foods make you feel a bit off? That's the perfect example of certain ingredients not optimally fueling your body.
One of the most important things to remember is there's no one-size-fits-all approach to eating that will benefit everyone. Some foods that may cause you discomfort can leave someone else feeling energized and fulfilled, so finding what serves your own body can make a major impact on your general well-being and comfort.
When it comes to pinpointing exactly which foods are wreaking havoc, however, it can be difficult to come to a conclusion without analyzing your diet and testing various food combinations to find what works. Enter: an elimination diet.
What is an elimination diet?
Your gut microbiome, migraines, and even your mental health: Diet affects so much more of your body than you might think. In fact, certain foods may even be triggering flare-ups, so it's worth investigating your eating habits to determine if there are any foods that would be best to discontinue in your diet to feel your best.
This is the crux of the elimination diet: cutting out foods that are known to cause issues in the stomach in order to mitigate pain and discomfort over time.
"It involves eliminating certain foods for a period of time, say three weeks, and then reintroducing each food, one at a time, to see which food causes symptoms and discomfort," explains registered dietitian and personal trainer Gabriela Barreto, M.S., R.D., CDN, CSSD, CFSC.
This particular method of eating isn't meant for weight loss, but rather it can help find triggers in your diet that may impede your quality of life.
How to follow an elimination diet.
It's first important to note that this eating plan is not intended to be a long-term solution or something you should follow for an extended period of time. Rather, the elimination diet should simply be used to determine which foods are causing you discomfort so you can remove those ingredients from your life rather than nix entire food groups from your eating plan.
You should also be aware that this is a restrictive diet by nature, and may lead to nutrient deficiencies in the future if followed for longer durations.
The process of following an elimination diet is relatively simple. "You want to remove all the foods that you are going to remove at the same time, not one by one. This is necessary to remove all the possible instigating foods for the same period of time," explains integrative immunologist Heather Moday, M.D. Then, generally two to six weeks later, "you want to reintroduce one food at a time every 36 to 48 hours to assess whether you have a negative reaction," she says.
Of course you should be consulting with a health care professional before making any major changes to your diet so they can guide you on which foods to keep your eye on, as well as which ingredients you can consume in the meantime to ensure you're still adequately nourishing1 your body.
Which foods can you eat on an elimination diet?
This is one eating plan that is highly personalized, so it depends on your body's sensitivities to determine what you can and cannot eat. "A very common elimination diet would be the removal of inflammatory foods, common food allergies, along with some common autoimmune instigators," notes Moday. "Removing processed foods, industrial seed oils, alcohol, sugar, wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts, and corn is a simple [way] to start."
However, there are many foods that you can still consume while following this protocol, as outlined by Barreto:
"Many protein-rich foods such as chicken, fish, beef, and seafood are generally OK on this diet," she explains. "Eggs may be OK if you know eggs do not generally irritate you." Lactose-free milk may be allowed, as well as oat milk or almond milk.
Most vegetables are generally allowed. However, Barreto notes that if you're following a low-FODMAP diet, you may need to nix some specific veggies.
Berries, melon, and citrus fruits are all OK to eat during an elimination diet for antioxidants, hydration, and immune-supporting vitamin C.
Depending on the type of elimination diet you try, rice, quinoa, gluten-free oats, gluten-free breads and cereals, as well as polenta may be included. (Here's a definitive list of what is and isn't considered gluten-free.)
Example elimination diet meal plan.
Once again, it will be up to your doctor to finalize a meal plan for you, but below we've outlined an example elimination eating plan (based on recommendations from Moday) to give you an idea of what a few days on the diet might look like:
- Gluten-free oats with hemp seeds, cooked with lactose-free milk
- Mixed greens salad with chopped cucumber, carrots, red bell pepper, quinoa, avocado, salmon, and a dressing made with olive oil and balsamic. Plus, a side of orange slices
- Roasted chicken with herbs, a baked sweet potato, and sauteed zucchini and yellow squash in garlic-infused olive oil
- Rice cakes with avocado and a slice of turkey for protein
- A bowl of berries
- A glass of almond milk with berries and almond butter (add a plant-based protein shake to increase protein intake)
- Crispy lemon and tomato thyme chicken thighs with a side salad
- Chia seed pudding made with almond milk and topped with a banana
- Carrot cake overnight oats (just make sure you choose gluten-free oats)
- Leftover chicken from Day 2
- Baked sweet potato and a side salad
Kinds of elimination diets.
Although the elimination diet is often used for pinpointing gastrointestinal triggers, it can also be helpful in figuring out other struggles within the body, such as:
- Elimination for eczema2
- Elimination for migraines3
- Elimination for gluten intolerance
- Elimination for lactose intolerance
- Elimination for inflammation4
- FODMAP elimination diet5 (one of the most common options)
Who shouldn't do an elimination diet.
The elimination diet is not a long-term eating plan and should not be followed for the sake of weight loss. By nature, it is a highly restrictive plan, so if you have a history of disordered eating, it's even more important to discuss a safe approach with your health care professional.
"Individuals with no clinical symptoms related to diet and food consumption do not need to follow an elimination diet," notes Barreto. "Individuals going through treatments or on medications should consult with the medical team before trying an elimination diet."
Moday also adds that those who struggle with vitamin and mineral deficiencies or are presently underweight should avoid following this eating plan.
It's also worth noting that eliminating foods that don't need to be removed from your diet may actually have a negative effect on your body over time, as you deprive yourself of vital nutrients. "Recent studies have found that people who eliminate gluten when they don't need to increase their risk of heart disease," integrative gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., MSCI, previously shared with mindbodygreen. Eliminating any and all grains can also be harmful to the gut, he adds.
This also extends to vegetables that may be causing you stomach discomfort. While it may seem like the natural next step to remove veggies from your diet that are making you feel ill, Bulsiewicz says this may not be the solution. "Digestive distress after eating fiber and plant foods is due to a gut that's overwhelmed. For some, this is just overdoing it with one big meal. But for most, this is evidence of a damaged gut," he explains. "You may have been told that this is proof that these foods are causing inflammation. They're not. It's just sloppy digestion."
The elimination diet is not intended to help change your physical appearance or make it easier to fall into restrictive eating habits. Instead, this plan is designed to help you identify foods that may be causing GI distress or triggering other health concerns such as eczema, migraines, and more.
With this, while it should only be followed in the short term, the elimination diet can be incredibly useful for finding foods that sit well while adequately nourishing your body. Your diet controls so much of how you feel6 in the day-to-day, so being intentional with what you're eating and tuning into what your body needs will help you thrive. Always work with a doctor before removing any major food groups from your diet.
Merrell Readman is the Associate Food & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. Readman is a Fordham University graduate with a degree in journalism and a minor in film and television. She has covered beauty, health, and well-being throughout her editorial career, and formerly worked at SheFinds. Her byline has also appeared in Women’s Health. In her current role, she writes and edits for the health, movement, and food sections of mindbodygreen. Readman currently lives in New York City.