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What is an Elimination Diet?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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An elimination diet is a type of restrictive diet which is used to identify food allergies or intolerance. Typically, patients embark on an elimination diet under the advice of a doctor, although some people may experiment with such diets on their own to see if they can identify the root causes of their medical problems. Food allergies can cause a wide range of symptoms including intestinal distress, heartburn, hives, rashes, and difficulty breathing; by eating an elimination diet, a patient can identify foods which should be avoided in the future.

There are two methods for carrying out an elimination diet. In the first, people slowly withdraw foods which are commonly associated with food intolerance, such as wheat, chocolate, dairy, nuts, and acidic fruits. A food diary is carefully kept, and the patient makes sure to record any symptoms experienced. At least a week is allowed to elapse between each withdrawal, ensuring that only one food is responsible for a change in symptoms. When a change is experienced, the patient knows that the most recent food removed from the diet is probably responsible.

The other technique is to start out with a very bland, plain diet of foods which are unlikely to produce symptoms. The patient slowly adds foods back in, recording what he or she eats and what symptoms are experienced. Five days to a week is allowed between each re-introduction, to ensure that symptoms will be isolated. When symptoms do emerge, the patient knows which food is responsible, and he or she can avoid it in the future.

While many people associate food allergies with severe reactions like those experienced by people who are allergic to nuts, these allergies can also be very subtle. Some medical conditions such as celiac disease, for example, are linked with food intolerance but it may take years for a doctor to realize that an allergy is causing the symptoms. Since elimination diets are very demanding, doctors do not recommend them lightly, and they impress the importance of sticking to the diet on their patients.

Once an elimination diet has identified problem foods, a patient should ideally avoid them in the future. An experienced allergist can talk about alternatives to these foods to keep the patient's diet balanced, varied, and enjoyable. Some patients choose to eat small amounts of dangerous foods on an infrequent basis because they miss them, and they should discuss this desire with their doctors.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bluedolphin — On Mar 16, 2013

What's the best base for doing a food elimination diet? Should I start with foods like chicken and potatoes for several weeks and go from there?

By burcidi — On Mar 15, 2013

This is how I figured out my intolerance to dairy and soy products too.

Most of us are allergic/intolerant to many foods. Intolerance doesn't always mean full-blown allergic symptoms. Sometimes the signs are subtle and difficult to notice when foods are not slowly introduced to the body.

By turquoise — On Mar 15, 2013

My sister-in-law did this with my three year old nephew because he was experiencing gastro-intestinal problems lately. He started getting diarrhea and hives from time to time but my sister couldn't tell what it was. His pediatrician suggested an elimination diet because his allergy tests weren't showing allergies for anything.

So she started feeding him bland foods that he could tolerate without problems and then started adding veggies and fruits.

The day she gave him raspberries, he broke out in hives. A few weeks later, he had strawberry yogurt and had hives and diarrhea. She hasn't given him any raspberries or strawberries after this and he hasn't had hives or diarrhea. This allergy elimination diet really works!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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