Food sensitivity testing, Whole 30, FODMAPS, elimination diets are everywhere touting relief of symptoms. But are elimination diets worth it? My intern shares her own personal experience with these types of programs.
Hi friends! I’m super excited to introduce you to my intuitive eating/private practice intern, Michelle. Michelle is passionate about eating disorder recovery, IE and health at every size and hopes to start her own private practice someday. I got the chance to meet her in-person a couple weeks ago as she recently moved to Boston to complete a rotation at a residential eating disorder treatment center and she’s as awesome in-person as she is via Skype :). Michelle has a really interesting history with trying elimination diets to relieve her GI symptoms and I’m excited that she’s going to share her personal story with ya’ll today! If you’ve thought about trying an elimination diet to feel better, you’ll definitely want to read this post. Thanks for sharing your story, Michelle! Take it away.
What’s an elimination diet? It is exactly what it sounds like – any eating plan that eliminates a certain food or group of foods for a period of time. Many elimination diets are designed to help identify trigger foods that might be causing certain physical symptoms. In this case the foods are eliminated and then gradually reintroduced to see if any one food (or group of foods) causes symptoms. Sometimes they can be helpful: IBS patients are often put on a low FODMAP diet to identify trigger foods that lead to digestive symptoms. Patients who have celiac benefit from eliminating gluten to relieve GI distress.
Other diets, looking at you Whole 30, are not based on research and are not created by health professionals. This diet eliminates many nutritious foods without solid evidence to back up the reasons. It’s important to understand how and why an elimination may or may not be helpful before diving in. I’ve had my fair share of experience with elimination diets, so I’m here to share my story in the hopes that it might help you out if an elimination diet is something you’re considering.
Before I immersed myself in intuitive eating, I was lured in by these diets. While I didn’t struggle with an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns, my physical discomfort led me to change my eating habits. During my junior year of college, I started to have almost daily stomach aches. After being told by a health center nurse that lactose intolerance must be the cause of my pain, I cut out dairy to see if things would improve. No such luck. I don’t even remember how long it was before I decided that this wasn’t working, but I know things didn’t get better because I still had frequent stomach aches when I studied abroad in the spring. I needed another answer.
Next, I thought gluten might be the culprit. I think I decided this on my own and attempted a gluten free stint. This wasn’t a horrible idea, my symptoms could have been caused by Celiac disease, but I got tested for Celiac and it came back negative. At that point, instead of eating gluten again I thought it still might be bad and maybe I was just sensitive. I felt so uncomfortable so often that I just kept avoiding it since I didn’t have any other concrete answers.
As I continued to feel less than my best, I continued to research possible remedies. Whole 30 made it onto my radar and of course I dug into their website and deep into their testimonials. So many people raved about improved digestion as well as clear skin (another struggle for me) and improvements in energy. This sounded like my answer! I decided to commit to a round of Whole 30, confident that I would be feeling better by the end of one short month. Well…it would have been a long month! I did not like that way of eating (I always felt too full after meals but then hungry again so soon) so Whole 30 quickly became Whole 3 and that was that.
After so much self-experimentation I was desperate for answers and sought out professionals. I looked up providers and found an RD offering food sensitivity testing via a blood test. Want to guess what I did? Yup, I had the blood test done. The way this test worked was once you got your results you would start out on a very restricted diet with only the foods that your test showed as super safe (zero sensitivity to them at all!). Over a few weeks you introduced more foods to see if there was any reaction. I felt so restricted during the initial phase – I was eating the same few foods in varying combinations every day! But I also did not have stomach aches. As I added in more foods I never noticed a reaction that I could directly link to a new food, but after a while my symptoms just slowly came back. Another RD recommended the low FODMAP diet and this process proved the same. I went FODMAP free and then reintroduced foods only to discover a slow reappearance of symptoms with no single food causing them.
I tried elimination diets 5 separate times and never had luck. I always felt good initially with the most restriction but that phase was always short lived and I would soon be so upset that I couldn’t just eat normally like my friends and family. I wasn’t really enjoying myself because fear of foods causing symptoms was so stressful and the restriction was equally as stressful. I felt I could only eat at home because that was the only way I would know exactly what was in my food. I was even eating different versions of dinner from my family so I felt uncomfortable even at my own kitchen table! I didn’t like being so different and I was always stressed when social plans came up. During these initial restricted phases, I would get fed up and start eating more variety with reintroduction and my symptoms would slowly come back but never in any systematic way. Some days I ate whatever I wanted and felt fine, some days I ate what I thought were “safe” foods and had a stomach ache. So…what was my solution?
I’m happy to say that I feel SO much better now. I did end up working with another dietitian and went through treatment using herbal antibiotics for possible bacterial overgrowth, AND I also really tackled stress and anxiety. First, I began speaking with a therapist, and eventually I started anxiety medication. While my last treatment for my digestion might have worked, the ending of it happened to coincide with when I started anxiety meds and I really think that had a huge impact on my physical health as well as mental. While I don’t feel bad daily like I used to, I still have days when my digestion is “off”-everyone does! What we eat, how we feel, whether we are traveling, etc. all impact our digestion and it is so normal to have weird digestion days. For me, I can always identify nerves or stress and anxiety on the days that my digestion feels wonky. I’ve learned through my experience that thoughts and emotions are so closely linked to how you feel. Your mental health affects your physical health and caring for both will help you feel your best. I didn’t fully realize how much my anxiety was hurting my physical well-being until I did something to treat it.
I do recognize that many people have medical conditions that impact their digestion and could require dietary modifications. I don’t want to imply that elimination diets never work. What I do want to communicate is that it’s good to look at your life and health as a whole before solely relying on dietary restrictions. It’s true that stress affects us much more than we realize and while not all stress is bad, controlling anxiety is a huge factor for my own health and comfort in my body.
What do you notice as the most important factors in helping you feel your best? If your digestion is a problem I encourage you to look at all aspects of your life. What are you doing for your own stress management? Are you stressed because of diets that are impacting your social life? Try to identify areas of stress and what you are able to change- whether that’s diet related or not- and I’d love to hear how you find balance with eating to feel your best and still living your life!
Michelle is a graduate student in the Masters of Public Health in nutrition program at UNC Chapel Hill. She has finished her courses and is in her final internship of the combined program. In her free time Michelle loves being in the kitchen or spending time outside. In her future career as a registered dietitian, Michelle hopes to work with eating disorder clients to help guide them toward a recovered life. You can connect with her on Instagram at @powerdbypeanutbutter!