The problems with elimination diets
Posted July 20
If you've lived long enough, you've seen the trends come and go in the dieting world. One minute fat is bad and the next it's carbs or fruit or some other villain who is to blame for poor health.
Elimination diets are no different — it's a new trend in the dieting world and people are hailing its benefits for solving all kinds of ailments and conditions. Some day in the near future, we will look back at elimination diets with the same level of regret and caution as we now do about the low-fat craze of the nineties.
And just in case you haven't yet heard of them: elimination diets are extremely restrictive dietary protocols intended to help the user determine food allergies or intolerances. That's the original intention behind them — but now, of course, they've been co-opted by the weight loss industry and so-called health gurus peddling potentially dangerous protocols never intended to be DIY pursuits.
However, there can be times when a medically-supervised elimination diet might be advantageous. And to anyone reading who is or has followed an elimination diet and feels that it's working great for them, great! I'm happy for you.
But, to anyone who is wondering whether or not to join the latest dieting fad, let's explore the potential consequences of these programs and talk about what might be a better idea instead.
Fear about food
First, these protocols can be problematic because they tend to increase fear and anxiety around certain foods. And, sometimes fear and anxiety about a certain food can actually be the root cause of perceived symptoms.
For example, if you believe you are going to have an unfavorable symptom after ingesting wheat and you eat a sandwich with fear in the back of your mind about the impending stomach ache, you will likely experience that stomach ache. The problem is that it's very unclear if the symptom you're experiencing is due to an intolerance or just due to your fear of that food. Anxiety about a food can produce the exact same symptoms as intolerances and it's very easy to misdiagnose yourself with an intolerance when the real issue is your fear of certain foods.
Unintended side effects
In addition, elimination diets can actually produce the very symptoms and experiences in your body that you are trying to avoid on a physiological level. You might experience brain fog or fatigue and attribute those symptoms to a certain allergen, but those symptoms might actually be caused by under eating. You might perceive a reaction to a particular food but you could actually be experiencing symptoms of hunger, stress and inflammation from undernourishment.
Another point to consider is the growing concern about orthorexia. Orthorexia is an obsession with "healthy" eating resulting in an unhealthy fixation of food purity and quality and often is characterized by continuing to cut foods out of the eating routine until you're left with a small handful of foods you'll eat. And since variety is key to our health and well-being, only consuming a handful of foods really isn't healthy at all. Elimination diets can be a hotbed for this type of disorder to flourish — and there are dangerous consequences associated with developing eating disorders.
As a trained nutrition professional who specializes in eating disorders, I do everything I can to avoid recommending restriction for my clients. Together we look at any other reason for symptoms before completely cutting out entire food groups or certain foods. Even when certain food restrictions are medically necessary, it can still be extremely difficult to completely avoid a certain food. And when it's not necessary, the amount of stress and anxiety restriction causes is an important consideration before embarking casually on the latest diet trend.
As with most diet fads, elimination diets are often just other forms of quick fixes and one-size-fits-all approaches to health. No matter what is restricted, we tend to develop disordered thinking and behaviors about those foods. Restriction breeds chaos and disordered eating behaviors, and often that is far worse for your health than anything you were trying to cure with the diet.
Instead of investigating what you can cut out of your diet, try getting back to the basics and being sensible about your eating, valuing both nourishment and satisfaction each and every time you sit down to a meal. No need for rigid restrictions and rules—just be sensible and try to take the best care of yourself as possible.
Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.