Why elimination diets don't work
Updated: Sep 28
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I was on a call with a client the other day and she said something that really stuck with me. She said…
“I’ve done so many elimination diets to try and get to the bottom of my symptoms and they work for a bit while I’m doing them, but then it always feels like the symptoms get even worse if I don’t stick to the strict diet 100%.”
I’ve literally been there on my own healing journey. What about you?
And about 80324 other negative emotions.
I, myself, have been put on elimination diets several times in my life for chronic digestive issues, skin problems, anxiety, and more. Every time I noticed very little improvement and a whole lot of stress, frustration, feeling like a failure, and food dread.
That’s why today I want to talk about why I feel that elimination diets don’t work and what I prefer to do instead.
What is an elimination diet?
An elimination diet is a very rigid diet plan often prescribed by a nutritionist or doctor with the intention of identifying food sensitivities that could be causing digestive issues, acne, skin problems, mood changes, fertility struggles, and more. Elimination diets often involve cutting out the most common food sensitivities all at once - think: dairy, gluten, soy, & eggs - plus common inflammatory foods like sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. After a “reset” phase folks then add these foods back in one at a time to see which ones create unwanted symptoms. Any that do are to be avoided essentially forever.
Elimination diets often require us to keep a food journal, track each and every morsel of food we eat, and focus our mindsets on what NOT to eat.
As someone with a history of eating disorders, I can tell you first-hand that this is a risky road for folks to walk down. All of my past disordered eating habits revolved around keeping a food journal, tracking every food item I ate, and fixating on what not to eat. Sound familiar?
So why am I convinced that elimination diets don’t work?
Let’s take a look…
1. Our symptoms are almost never about a specific food or food group
What I’ve experienced personally and professionally is that unless someone has a tried and true food allergy, the chronic symptoms we struggle with are almost never because of one specific food or food group.
We can become sensitive to certain foods as a result of our body system being out of balance and struggling with the impact of chronic inflammation. Underlying systemic inflammation can be caused by many seemingly simple things like a stressful lifestyle, unbalanced blood sugar (think: skipping breakfast, fueling on sugary protein bars, and more), hormonal imbalance, and living out of alignment with our bodies and our cyclical needs.
As a result of all this inflammation and systemic bodily stress, we can develop sensitivities to certain foods that would otherwise not cause us any discomfort at all. A great example of this is when I, myself, was struggling with unexplained intestinal yeast issues, I felt a little better after eliminating all sugary foods that could feed the yeast which meant cutting out even healthy foods like whole grain breads, dark chocolate, and nearly all fruit.
The issue? This way of eating was totally unsustainable (scroll down for more on that) so when I “messed up” and ate bread or had a smoothie or ate my favorite dark chocolate bar the same yeast symptoms would flair up - and sometimes even worse than before.
But, the good news is that once I learned how to HEAL the underlying hormonal imbalances and systemic inflammation that were wreaking havoc on my body the yeast issues completely disappeared WHILE I continued eating hearty sourdough breads, snacking on organic dark chocolate, and eating a berry smoothie every morning.
It wasn’t the foods that were the ROOT issue. It was the underlying imbalance or DIS-ease.
Eliminating certain foods can bring temporary relief when we’re struggling with chronic inflammation because it cuts out foods that tend to aggravate an already inflamed system, however it almost never gets to the root of the problem and therefore doesn’t often HEAL the issue.
It’s almost never about the foods. It’s almost always about the imbalance that is making us sensitive to the foods in the first place.
2. Elimination diets are unsustainable because restriction doesn’t make us feel good.
I promised you I would circle back to this major issue that I have with elimination diets. The level of restriction required by elimination diets is wildly unsustainable. We simply cannot keep up that level of extreme restriction and feel happy in our mind, body, and spirit.
Food restriction feels awful. It feels like we’re missing out. It feels like control and perfectionism. It feels like our options are limited.
As someone who lived with various eating disorders for most of her teens and twenties, I can tell you that not only is it impossible to feel happy when we live like that, but it also creates a very negative relationship to food.
When we practice food restriction we feel like food controls us. On the other hand, however, when we practice food freedom we feel like we are in control of our choices.
After breaking up with eating disorders and elimination diets I now live a life of food freedom. That means that I can eat any foods I want. McDonald’s - yup, I can eat it. A green smoothie - yup, I can eat it. A huge bowl of ice cream - yup, I can eat it. Do I eat all of these foods? No. I haven’t eaten McDonald’s in years. I also don’t eat cow’s milk ice cream because it makes me crazy gassy. But, I could if I wanted to. The choice is mine and I am choosing to eat what makes me feel good. You see the difference there?
Saying that you CAN’T have fast food or ice cream feels like restriction and control. Saying that you CAN have fast food and ice cream, but CHOOSE not to feels like freedom.
On elimination diets there is almost never a sense of freedom. We feel controlled by the restriction and it can leave us deeply unhappy. This unhappiness can increase the very stress that fuels chronic, systemic inflammation and dis-ease.
3. Elimination diets can create more stress which increases the inflammation that may be at the root of our symptoms
Which brings me to my next issue with elimination diets - they can create more stress which can increase the inflammation that may be at the root of our symptoms. When we’re constantly fixated on eating exactly the right foods, strictly avoiding foods we love, and meticulously tracking every morsel we eat and drink, it can create a lot of unnecessary stress. When has someone tracking your every action ever felt good? Hi, never.
This is why I suspect many people don’t feel all that much better even after doing elimination diets. The stress and inflammation that was fueling their symptoms may have benefited from cutting out foods they had developed sensitivities to while living out of balance, but the very diet that was designed to make them feel better may actually have been increasing the stress and inflammation that was making them feel like crap. Can you say vicious cycle?
So, what can we do instead of elimination diets?
Learn how to live in alignment with our bodies
And by that I mean learn how to give our bodies what they NEED to feel good.
As I’ve seen it, the following shifts have been more impactful than elimination diets for my clients because they focus on living in alignment with the natural cycles and shifts of our bodies.
Let’s take a hot second to dive into each one to see why they can make such a big impact…
Balance Blood Sugar
When we skip meals, think that coffee and a granola bar are breakfast, go long spans of time without eating, or forget to eat protein & fat with our meals then our blood sugar levels can spike and dip dramatically. This causes internal stress and inflammation. It also wreaks havoc on our hormones and our menstrual cycles. Simply by eating breakfast within 1 hour of waking up, eating regular meals throughout the day, and eating a healthy protein and fat at each meal we can start to balance our blood sugar and heal systemic stress and inflammation.
Eat more of the right foods
This means eating a healthy fat and protein at each meal, sticking to slow carbs, and eating lots of fresh veggies and fruits - aka the foods that help us balance our blood sugar. It doesn’t mean that you can’t eat cookies or chips. It just means that you make these other really important food habits a priority.
Balance your hormones & Heal your menstrual cycle
Ready to have your mind blown? Every single one of my clients who came in with digestive issues, acne, and mood symptoms noticed that these issues all improved without ever intentionally focusing on them. So, how did they do it? They healed their menstrual cycles and underlying hormonal imbalances.
Here’s the deal - your body is not made up of separately functioning systems despite how our modern medical world is set up. Everything in your body is interconnected. Every system is connected to every other system. It’s a beautiful dance of interconnectedness. So it makes sense that when one system heals others do too.
As a menstruating human our menstrual rhythms (aka infradian rhythm, look it up!) drive our body and so many of its systems during our reproductive years. Your uterus is lined with immune cells, your stomach and liver break down estrogen, your adrenal glands make sex hormones, your brain literally triggers ovulation itself - girl, it’s all connected.
When you heal your menstrual cycle, you heal your BODY.
Sync your life with your menstrual cycle
A huge part of healing your menstrual cycle is learning to live in alignment with its shifting phases and cyclical needs. What your body needs and has the capacity for during the ovulation phase is very different from what your body needs and has the capacity for leading up to your period. When we try to maintain the same level of go-go-go all cycle long we actually create friction with our natural rhythms, grating against the needs of our body. This can create internal stress, inflammation, and imbalance. When we learn how to eat, move, and live in alignment with the changing needs of our body each month we release the friction and create internal ease and wellbeing.
Workout lighter and shorter
Okay, so this is really part of living in alignment with your menstrual cycle, but so many people resist this one that I’m going to call it out on its own. Look, your menstrual cycle does not like hour-long intense cardio or ultra-heavy lifting. Your menstrual cycle thrives on shorter bursts of cardio (think 20 to 30 minutes), moderate strength training, and shorter workouts. Why? Because your brain doesn’t know the difference between you running for 3 hours a day for exercise and you running for 3 hours a day because you’re running from wolves and famine. This kicks your brain into survival mode and you know what your brain doesn’t want you to do if you’re literally running for your life every day? Get pregnant or ovulate well because that could help you get pregnant. As a result of intense workouts, our hormones and menstrual cycles can struggle.
Ditch hormonal birth control
You had to see this one coming haha. Hormonal birth control literally creates hormonal imbalance. That’s how it keeps you from getting pregnant. It changes your natural hormonal balance. As a result, as many of us have experienced, it can lead to a host of unwanted symptoms of imbalance like digestive issues, yeast infections, anxiety, depression, weight gain, acne, and more. For many of my clients simply going off of hormonal birth control made an enormous impact on their chronic symptoms to the point where many disappeared over 3 to 6 natural cycles off of birth control.
So, where do you go from here?
You invest in the resources and support you need in order to break free from hormonal birth control, learn how to heal your menstrual cycle and balance your blood sugar, and start living in alignment with your cyclical needs.
That’s where I come in!
Learn more about working with me in my signature Cycle Wisdom Course.
PS. I am not a doctor or health care provider and nothing in this post is intended to be interpreted as medical advice. I am a fertility awareness educator with a unique and intensive knowledge of the menstrual cycle, its needs, and its impact on the body. I have worked with countless women from all over the world to help them have healthier menstrual cycles and feel better in their bodies. I have also personally healed from cancer, heavy & painful periods, 40+ yeast infections from age 19 to 23, and chronic unexplained digestive issues. This post is simply intended to serve as a deep reflection of all that I've learned through my vast personal and professional experience. My hope is that if you find yourself struggling with chronic symptoms, feeling frustrated by elimination diets, and feeling let down by doctors that this post brings you the insight and comfort of knowing that you're not alone and maybe, in fact, there is another way!
Disclaimer: Brandy Oswald, Sauvage Wellness LLC, and her employees are not doctors, nurses, physicians, psychotherapists, or in anyway licensed medical practitioners and information presented here is to serve as an educational resource and not to be interpreted as: (1) medical advice; (2) a 100% effective birth control or pregnancy achievement options or (3) nutrition or health guidelines. By reading this you acknowledge that you understand that as a specialized form of consulting, fertility awareness education is not the same as professional or licensed therapy or medical advice and intervention; and recognize that it is your responsibility to seek such services from a licensed professional. Brandy Oswald is not a medical provider and cannot give medical advice. All information provided by Sauvage Wellness LLC and Brandy Oswald is of a general nature and is intended only for educational purposes to help with your personal health improvement goals and should not be relied on as medical advice. Always consult a physician with any health concerns and prior to changing your diet, lifestyle, supplements, birth control, fitness, or prescription medicine routine. Should you choose to use the information provided by Brandy Oswald it is of your own volition and you recognize that neither Brandy nor Sauvage Wellness LLC is not held liable for any intended or unintended outcomes.
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