Lessons of An Elimination Diet
After writing about the many trials and tribulations I've gone through over the last three years to try to fix my skin, it's likely no surprise to you that I put myself through this special kind of hell as well to see if it helps. Desperate times.
If any of you are like me and not quite sure what an elimination diet even is, here is the breakdown. Essentially you cut out a selection of foods for a length of time (in my case, 6 weeks), and then slowly start re-introducing the foods one at a time. You re-introduce one food, wait 2-3 days, and note any side effects (in my case it would be breakouts, eczema, or bloating and/or stomach issues), then you re-introduce item #2, wait 2-3 days... so on and so forth.
It's a time commitment of Game of Thrones proportions, basically.
The first step was working with my naturopath to figure out what my food sensitivities are. Last fall, I took a blood test to test my lgG antibodies. These antibodies are not tested for in your typical allergy testing, which tests for anything immediate and severe. This test will pick up any sensitivities that may be less serious and have a delayed onset (i.e. inflammation, bloating, breakouts).
There is a lot of debate around the effectiveness of this kind of food sensitivity test, and how open to interpretation the results are, but at this point I was ready to try anything. I felt like it - while expensive - would be a bit more definitive and less guesswork/less like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks than the alternative -- just eliminating every single thing that the naturopath thinks might be an issue.
Turns out my list of sensitivities is just as long as what would've been the alternative, so I may as well have saved myself the money and just gone with throwing the spaghetti at the wall.
I'm likely sensitive to a lot: cow's milk, goat's milk, lactose, eggs, swiss cheese, cheddar cheese, gluten, barley, rye, oats, malt, bananas, lettuce, kale, arugula, flax, chia, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, pea, yeast (which is everywhere), coffee, black tea, broccoli, tomatoes, black pepper, chilli pepper... the list goes on.
Thankfully, I was up for the challenge. Though, like any great experiment, I waited until the new year to tackle this. Realistically I knew there was no way I would get through the holidays and then a trip to NYC with an extremely limited diet. So, when mid-January arrived I said goodbye to my favourite alcoholic beverage (beer) and my favourite food groups (bagels, cheese, pizza, and mini eggs) for a few months for the greater good of my body.
Armed with my list of no-no's in hand, I had to really think about what groceries I could buy and what meals I could make with my go-to's no longer an option. It was time to get creative if I wanted to eat anything that was remotely interesting because I had to cut out all these foods for 6 WEEKS. Yes, this is truly what nightmares are made of.
But, I learned that meal prep can be fun when you're mindful of what you're eating. I've never been super into cooking, so getting creative with my ingredients was a huge challenge. It wasn't something that came naturally to me, and I didn't have that instinct to know what could sub for what when it's outside of the obvious.
Something as simple as my everyday breakfast smoothie was completely thrown into question when I couldn't put my vegan protein powder in it - I don't eat pork and I couldn't eat eggs or oats, so how the heck was I supposed to feel full in the morning?!
Fun fact: my go-to alternative breakfast protein, turkey bacon, has eggs listed in the ingredients so even that was off the table!
Well, it turns out that putting a full avocado in my smoothie every day was not only good for me, but also gave me that full feeling. Paired with a mid-morning snack of berries, I was good to go until lunch.
It took a lot of research, trial and error, and many trips to the grocery store before I found my groove with what substitutions I was allowed (and liked), but I got there! And eventually, I started to enjoy my grocery runs and Sundays in the kitchen, taking so much pride in and feeling good about the yummy, from-scratch meals I was making with fresh, healthy ingredients (bye-bye so many pre-packaged condiments)!
Right, you're probably wondering about my skin by now
While I didn't notice a strong correlation between the absence of certain foods and breakouts (FYI: I still broke out during the elimination diet), I did notice breakouts were nearly a sure thing when I had an abundance of something I shouldn't.
So, whether I'm a true believer that my skin issues can be blamed on what I eat is still up for debate. But this experiment wasn't all for nothing, I'm still taking away a key change and that is my relationship with food.
I’ve gained so much knowledge about food and ingredients and how what I consume truly affects how I feel. The big win for me has been learning that I don't need to feel constantly bloated and tired if I'm more mindful of what I eat. And this has been life changing.
I feel less lethargic and have way more mental clarity when I don't drink coffee (seems counter intuitive, right?) Sugar? Yep, I definitely break out after I eat it. So predictable. And the bloat I feel after I eat any amount of dairy is more consistent than Steph Curry nailing those 3s.
This all feels like common sense, but until you put it to the test you don't understand just how good you can feel when you aren't putting things into your body that your body doesn't like. Makes sense, right?
Going through this I really had to rethink my relationship with food, which isn't a bad thing to be honest. I've always been a fairly healthy eater, but I definitely have a sweet tooth (and a bread and cheese tooth) and can indulge to the point of extremes at times. Who hasn't crushed a family size bag of mini eggs during an episode of Riverdale?
I also realized just how much my life revolves around food and drink in social settings. Want to go watch a basketball game? Sure, let me just sip this glass of water while you drink beer and eat nachos in front of me. That is my literal hell.
Well, time to get over that and learn to enjoy myself while out with friends with neither of those things. Soda water is a good (and fun!) treat when you're out with friends, and just eat before you go out. Easy. You'll save money too!
Snack replacement? I discovered the joy of the popcorn chip. Sweet treat? Enter, strawberries.
Does that mean I will never have coffee, sugar, dairy, or yeast again? No, but I will be more mindful of how much I have, and recognize that I’ll need to live with how I feel when I do have it.
Overall, I understand that what I put into my body really matters in helping me live a clearer life -- for my skin, my mind, and my stomach.
Sometimes though, that grilled cheese or bag of mini eggs is worth the stomach ache or next-day break out.