Last week I did something I thought I’d never do: I went to the gluten-free section at the grocery store. And not for any sinister reasons. I went there to actually contemplate purchasing gluten-free food-like products. In the end I chose not to get anything because the stuff either didn’t look great, contained ingredients I don’t recognize, contained other ingredients I’m temporarily avoiding, or were things I’d be better off making.
So phew – I’m still me. But why was I there? Because I recently started an elimination diet. I’m not usually one for diets – unless you count my daily pizza diet. I’m not trying this as a means to lose weight. (Side note: I’m mortified that I felt a need to say that. Like somehow if a person changes their eating it must be because they aren’t happy with how they look. And apparently on some level I share that thought or I wouldn’t have written that sentence. Sigh.)
I’ve started this elimination diet because I have noticed what I think are a few allergy-like symptoms. I’ve recently realized that I’ve been slightly congested for a good six months – maybe even longer. Not enough that it prevents me doing anything, but noticeable when I breathe during exercises like kettlebell swings. For years I’ve had what I think is considered a winter allergy: If I use skin products with any scent in the winter, that area of skin becomes red and feels hot. Easy to fix by just not using scented products in the winter. But this past winter that problem turned ugly: I started getting red-faced after drinking red wine or beer. (side note #2: The appropriate response to this as a reader is to place hands on cheeks and let out a loud “noooooooo”. Or just visualize that. Either or.) As you can imagine, the obvious solution did not appeal to me, so instead of cutting out red wine and beer, I experimented with different beers and wines. While the hoppier beers were worse, I sadly can’t say that other beers were fine. Thankfully my problem went away as the weather improved before I tried to replace red wine with white.
I’ve long thought that elimination diets were a great option for people with digestion issues affecting them. It just makes sense. But I never felt any need to try one because I always felt great, and it never for a moment occurred to me that my winter allergy (sensitivity?) to scents (scentsitivity? – sorry, my repressed familial habit of punning comes out on occasion) could be related to food. Until it spread to wine and beer, which suddenly had a more direct link to my digestive tract. That’s also when I realized I had mild congestion that had been hanging around a long time.
Through conversations with my clients and friends, I suspect that a lot of people have at least slightly unhappy digestive systems. It turns out a lot of people experience (what I think are) obvious symptoms like bloating and what I’ll politely refer to as intestinal distress. I wonder how many are reading this and thinking, ‘huh, maybe I should try this.‘
I did what everyone does when they think they have a health issue: I turned to Dr. Google. She did not disappoint! There is a lot of information “out there” about elimination diets and as it turns out, many different versions exist. I had initially settled on a version from Precision Nutrition, because I find them to publish science-based information. I went to the grocery store to pick up foods that would fit the diet: fish, fruit (but not citrus), vegetables (no nightshades), rice cakes, rice cereal, and coconut milk. I was going to grab some lamb and turkey as well but they were both more expensive than I was hoping, so I skipped that momentarily.
The day before I was planning to start, I baulked. I was thinking about what I would eat for the next two days and I didn’t have enough options ready. I decided to wait a few days and pull together more recipes. In searching for recipes, I came across several other elimination diet options, including this phased approach from greatist.com, Phase one offered a removal of gluten, dairy, soy, and eggs for 21 days. Huh, that seems very doable. I’ll be honest, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the Precision Nutrition one. I couldn’t even find a salad dressing recipe that would fit the diet, as vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, yoghurt, and lemon juice are all out. I guess olive oil with salt and pepper would work, but I have a hard time with that. Maybe the Oil & Vinegar concept has been hammered into me for too long. I was also looking ahead to my birthday and then Canada Day thinking that I either have to drastically change how I typically celebrate one of them, or wait until July 2nd to start. I really didn’t want to wait, making the phased approach even more appealing.
Seeing that there are so many different versions of the elimination diet also told me something: It told me that the specificity of the science behind them probably doesn’t exist. And that’s okay. But it does suggest to me that the evidence supporting one version over another is probably not strong. And thus I steered myself to the phased approach over the more restrictive approach. For a moment I felt badly about that – that it was somehow cheating. Until I realized that I was very confident that I can stick to the phased approach for the prescribed duration without cheating, but I did not have that confidence for the restrictive one. As a coach, I know that the program you will stick to is always superior to the one you won’t. I should probably apply that to myself as well. Thus I happily made the decision to go with the phased approach. In fact I was so excited about it, I decided to go ahead with my original schedule of starting the next day.
I’m writing this on day 12 and I have a number of observations:
- Overall I’m amazed at how easy this is. I thought I might seriously crave cheese, but I haven’t really. The guacamole has probably helped there. And the fact that I can eat rice, corn, and potatoes makes creating a meal quite manageable.
- I need to eat fish more often. Its healthy, delicious, and easy to prepare.
- Indian food fits the bill quite nicely. I was happy to reach for the notes I had made when my friend Neena gave me a Punjabi cooking lesson. This time I tried an East meets West variation by making a curried Venison chop with red lentils, zucchini and broccoli, and rice.
- Social breakfast is a different story. I went to a friend’s cottage last weekend and it was while discussing breakfast for Sunday that I suddenly realized that eggs are a component of bacon and eggs. Seriously. It was a terrible realization. But whatever, I had some tasty cereal with fruit while my friends had waffles with maple syrup. It probably wasn’t that good anyhow. At least I had the side of bacon.
- As I sat on the dock drinking a gin and tonic and eating potato chips, I pondered how silly it is that many people assume a gluten-free diet is by definition healthy.
- I love most Asian cuisine, so I searched long and hard to find something that didn’t have soy in it. Eventually I came across a recipe for pad thai that is allegedly “the real thing”. The sauce is fish sauce, vinegar, tamarind paste, and sugar. I just skiped the egg and went ahead, with rice noodles. So yummy!
- As the week progressed, I realized that preparation was key to success with sticking to this diet. The option to just grab take out is much trickier without gluten, soy, eggs, and dairy. Social events can also be tough. I went to my tennis club bbq and had a steak and some coleslaw. Everything else was dairy-licious.
- Mexican food is a good friend when avoiding these foods. Which thankfully is one of my favourites.
- After eleven days of this, I realized I had not noticed any difference, which suggests to me that none of the phase 1 foods are problematic for me. Because of this, I decided that I would go off this approach for my birthday (day 12) because, well, I wasn’t interested in trying dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free cake. Had I noticed any changes, I might have been convinced to stick with this for 21 days straight, but I have a hard time buying that 20 of 21 days will be a failed experiment while 21 of 21 days would be scientific. If someone has a compelling argument (preferably fact-based) as to why I am wrong about this, please do share.
Over the weekend I had a chat about food with a friend at the tennis club, who quickly noted that dairy is evil. I disagreed and within a short time he rephrased his comment to dairy is evil for him and likely others, but not everyone. He also noted that he thinks everyone should try going without dairy for a few weeks to see if in fact it is evil for them. I agree with that completely. In fact I really think everyone would be well served to take some time to remove foods from their regular diet and see if they notice a difference. I will qualify this with the suggestion that if you have medical concerns, you really should see you actual doctor instead of Dr. Google. I do intend to see my doctor if this congestion doesn’t clear up.
Thoughts? Your own elimination diet experiences to share? Let’s chat below in the comments.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa.