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NUTRITION: Eliminate specific foods to solve health woes

An elimination diet might help track down foods that are causing health problems. Such diets strategically remove certain foods for a length of time. Getty Images

Do you suffer from digestive problems, headaches, chronic sinus issues, fatigue, skin irritations, stubborn weight or joint aches? Have you ever considered if foods are at the root of your health woes?

If you suspect foods are playing a role in your symptoms, an elimination diet might be warranted. Such diets strategically remove certain foods or food components for a length of time and then reintroduces them to determine if a food is causing negative symptoms.

This therapeutic diet strategy can be both diagnostic and therapeutic. The diagnostic aspect is that it helps you uncover hidden food sensitivities or intolerances. The therapeutic aspect helps reduce inflammation and induces healing, particularly in your gut.

Food sensitivities are an immune response that can provoke symptoms anywhere in the body and may occur within hours or up to three days after ingesting the food. These food reactions are often caused by an imbalanced gut, which affects the immune system.

Food intolerances are not immune-related and occur when an individual lacks the digestive enzyme or nutrient needed to break down the particular food component. For instance, lactose is the enzyme needed to break down the sugar lactose in cow's milk, so lactose intolerance is the term used when someone has trouble digesting milk sugar. On the other hand, some individuals have problems with the proteins in milk (casein and whey), which are usually classified as food sensitivity.

There are many types of elimination diets, including popular diets like the Whole30, Paleo and others. Elimination diets that I commonly recommend to patients include:

• Single-food elimination diet: gluten, dairy, egg and others

• Gluten-free and dairy-free

• Six-food elimination (cow's milk, soy, wheat, egg, peanut, shellfish)

• Comprehensive elimination diet (alcohol, beef, chocolate, caffeine, corn, dairy, eggs, gluten, peanuts, pork, processed vegetable oils, processed meats, shellfish, soy, sugar)

• Low-FODMAP (fermentable carbohydrates in common foods)

If you suspect a specific food is causing symptoms, that's always a good place to start. Otherwise, either the six-food or comprehensive elimination diets is helpful for many.

Remove the foods completely for at least six weeks. You should see some symptom resolution by the end of this time. If you don't, you may need to extend your trial by two more weeks.

After this, slowly reintroduce each food item one day at a time. Eat that one food two to three times over the course of one day in a normal portion size. Stop eating that food and monitor for symptoms over the next 48 hours. If there's no reaction, you can keep the food in your diet. If you notice reaction, stop eating that food. You can then move on to the next food to reintroduce.

Potential reactions to look out for include diarrhea or constipation, fatigue, depression, anxiety, gas, bloating, abdominal pain, headache, muscle or joint pain, skin irritations or break-outs, insomnia, sinus congestion or runny nose, itching or flushing.

You may want to talk to a health professional who is skilled in food sensitivities to determine which elimination diet might be best for you and help guide you through the process.

Jean Larson is a licensed and registered dietitian in the Integrative Health Department at the Essentia Health-Duluth Clinic. Contact her at