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Do you have food sensitivities? Here's a beginner's guide to the elimination diet

With so many food options at our fingertips, it's easy to overlook the impact that certain foods may have on our bodies.

With so many food options at our fingertips, from convenience foods, meal delivery, and restaurants galore, to classic home-cooked meals, it's easy to overlook the impact that certain foods may have on our bodies.

Many people suffer from various symptoms such as bloating, brain fog, fatigue, joint pain, skin issues, or digestive problems without realizing that these could be linked to something they are eating and simply doesn’t agree with them. 

This is where the concept of an elimination diet comes in. Elimination diets are a powerful tool to uncover potential food sensitivities and tailor a personalized meal plan for feeling better with a few key dietary changes. Here’s how.

Why Should You Uncover Food Sensitivities?

There are plenty of reasons why someone might begin the work to uncover food sensitivities. Common issues include unexplained digestive problems, skin conditions like eczema, acne or rosacea, headaches, fatigue, and even pesky mood swings. 

By identifying and eliminating trigger foods, individuals can experience relief from these symptoms, and start to feel better almost immediately. Who wouldn’t want that? It just takes a small window of time—two to four weeks is the expert-recommended window—and some patience with the process. 

Food Allergies vs.Sensitivities vs. Intolerances

But before you can start to uncover what might be ailing you food-wise, it’s important to differentiate between food allergies and sensitivities. 

Food sensitivities express themselves as delayed immune responses, with more subtle symptoms like bloating or fatigue showing up hours after eating. One of the most common types of food sensitivities is, not surprisingly, gluten. 

Food allergies, on the other hand, trigger an immediate, and in severe cases, a potentially life-threatening immune response. Symptoms, like hives, swelling, and anaphylaxis, usually appear within minutes but sometimes can take a few hours. A good example of a food allergy is nuts or shellfish. 

Food intolerances are another category that can often be confused with food allergies and sensitivities. Unlike allergies and sensitivities, food intolerances do not involve the immune system. Instead, they typically stem from the body's inability to digest certain foods properly— lactose is a good example—often due to enzyme deficiencies. 

This can lead to symptoms like gas, bloating, or diarrhea. Understanding the distinctions between food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances is crucial for managing one's diet and overall health effectively.

Diagnosing food sensitivities and intolerances often involves elimination diets and testing, while food allergies are diagnosed through skin tests, blood tests, and supervised oral challenges. 


How to Follow an Elimination Diet

When starting an elimination diet, the first step is to remove common trigger foods known to cause sensitivities. These may include gluten in wheat-containing grains, soy, dairy, certain nuts, seafood, eggs, sugar, nightshade vegetables, legumes, and even alcohol. 

The reason these food groups can sometimes wreak havoc in our systems is because:

  • Gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, as gluten is a common allergen and can trigger digestive issues and inflammation. 
  • Dairy products, particularly cow's milk, are another common culprit due to lactose intolerance or sensitivity to casein protein. 
  • Sugar, especially refined sugars and artificial sweeteners, can also contribute to inflammation and digestive disturbances. 
  • Alcohol, particularly beer and wine, can contain allergens like sulfites or histamines that may lead to reactions. 
  • Legumes, such as beans and lentils, contain compounds that can cause digestive issues in some individuals. By removing these potential trigger foods during an elimination diet, individuals can allow their bodies to reset and identify specific sensitivities that may be contributing to their symptoms.
  • Seafood, nuts, eggs, and soy are also common trigger foods that individuals may need to eliminate when following an elimination diet, as they can all lead to various symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to severe reactions. 

By temporarily removing these foods from the diet along with other potential triggers, individuals can better understand how their bodies react to specific foods and identify any underlying sensitivities that may be causing health issues.

What to Eat During the Elimination Phase

While on an elimination diet, focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, nuts (if eating), and seeds. These foods provide essential nutrients and support overall health during the elimination phase. Experiment with new recipes and food combinations to keep meals exciting and satisfying. A popular elimination plan known as The Whole 30 is a great resource for delicious recipes and ideas that exclude the most common trigger foods but still offer a ton of variety. 

How Long to Follow an Elimination Diet

The duration of an elimination diet varies but typically lasts around two to four weeks. The aforementioned Whole 30 recommends 30 days with a 10-day food reintroduction phase. Because you’re already investing so much time and energy to get to the root of what is ailing you, it’s best not to rush the process and take your time in order to find out which food or foods are causing your symptoms. 

During this time, monitor any changes in symptoms and how you feel overall. Once the elimination phase is complete, it's time to start the reintroduction process.


Reintroducing Foods

When reintroducing foods, do so one at a time, allowing a few days in between each reintroduction. This approach helps pinpoint which specific food triggers symptoms. Keep a food journal to track any reactions and consult with a healthcare professional if needed.

Seeking Professional Guidance

If navigating an elimination diet seems a bit overwhelming or if symptoms persist, seek guidance from a nutritionist, naturopath, or dietitian. Each professional brings a different type of expertise.

A nutritionist specializes in providing guidance on food and nutrition to promote overall health and well-being. They may offer advice on meal planning, dietary supplements, and lifestyle changes. 

A dietitian, on the other hand, is a licensed healthcare professional who has completed specific education and training in dietetics. They are qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat nutritional issues, including food sensitivities and allergies, using evidence-based practices. 

Naturopaths focus on a holistic approach to healthcare, incorporating natural remedies and treatments to address underlying causes of health issues, including food sensitivities and allergies. 

While all three professionals can provide valuable insights into discovering food sensitivities, a dietitian is often the most qualified to diagnose and treat specific nutritional issues, specifically food intolerances and allergies.

About the Author


Alicia is a journalist and editor in digital and print media specializing in health, nutrition, fitness, and wellness. She was previously the Editorial Director of Clean Eating and Vegetarian Times. Her work has also appeared in Hone Health The Edge, Yoga Journal, Women’s Running, and Oxygen, among others. In addition to being a content creator, she's an ISSA-certified nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and fitness studio owner in Toronto. Alicia loves spreading the word about helpful, science-backed health information, and she can be contacted via her website at