From Elimination Diet to Diet Minimalism: Reintroductions & Results (Part II)
In part one of this post, I wrote about why we decided to embark on a six-week journey to clean up our eating, how we went about eliminating various foods and food groups, and what foods this left us with. What I’d expected to be a dreadful six-week experience of having to restrict myself from foods that once brought me joy (wine, avocados, sweet potatoes, etc.), ended up turning into six weeks of stress-free, craving-free eating. After the first week or so, it became strangely liberating to not have to put any mental effort into figuring out what to cook and eat for lunch, dinner, or what to snack on, precisely because our available options were so limited. Much like how Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck and jeans to work every day so he wouldn’t have to exert mental energy towards figuring out what to wear, we, too, embarked on a similar journey but with what we ate. Think of it as… diet minimalism— you simplify what you eat to a few dozen ingredients in total (including spices, snacks, etc.) while maintaining the macro-and-micro-nutrient profile your body needs.
Below is a week-by-week progress report of how I felt throughout the process—physically, mentally and sometimes, spiritually—along with a section that dives into how we went about the reintroduction process.
Week 1: Keto Flu is Real
The first two days went by without any noticeable differences. I ran on Monday and felt great, went to a spin class on Tuesday and felt a bit winded, but that was normal for me after spin. Jeff and I already ate on the healthier side prior to kicking off our elimination diet, so the biggest adjustment for us was going keto (high fat, low-carb). Day 3, I woke up feeling congested, weak and fatigued. I skipped my work out that day and allowed myself some rest. I’d heard and read about the keto flu, but didn’t think I’d fall victim to it, given all of the preparatory work Jeff and I had done in stocking up on and taking exogenous ketones, electrolytes, drinking broth and hydrating plenty with mineral water. All of which were supposed to help remedy the keto flu. But days 3-5 were really tough for me—I had trouble focusing, I slept in an hour later than usual, I felt restless. The most alarming thing was how winded I got from climbing the two flights of stairs leading up to our apartment. What. The. F--k. I canceled all of my exercise plans for those few days, and let myself rest. These were not my most attractive, productive or inspiring days; I let myself lounge like a beached whale. Day 6, Saturday, I woke up feeling much better, thank god, my energy levels seemed to have stabilized and I felt good enough to go on a short, 2-mile run. The run was fine—I didn’t over-or-under perform. I was happy to be back to baseline normal again, in physical energy and mental clarity. Day 7, I was back to my normal waking hour of 6:30/7 am without an alarm. It seems I’d survived the keto flu. And, I didn’t experience a single stomachache or bloating the entire week. Progress.
Week 2 & Week 3: Peaks & Valleys
These next two weeks were not particularly remarkable in terms of physical and mental energy level and performance. I felt much like how I’d always felt. There would be one or two really good days each week, followed by one or two not-so-great days. I was constantly in flux. The good days were really good—I’d get a shit ton done, felt as though I had an unlimited reserve of energy and was in really good spirits, as if nothing could bring me down—but the bad days were really bad—it was as though the keto flu returned for a brief but mighty visit. I took each day in stride, downing electrolytes in the morning with a full glass of mineral water, and mixing in a half scoop of exogenous ketones a couple of times throughout the day. In spite of the peaks and valleys, the elimination diet seemed to be working—I’d gone three weeks with no stomachaches or bloating!
Week 4 to Week 6: What Optimal Health Feels Like
Towards the end of the third week going into the fourth, something shifted. We went to bed at the same time as before, around 10 pm, but both of us started waking up earlier and earlier, first it was 5:30 am, then 5 am and eventually we settled in at around 4:30 am, without an alarm clock. We weren’t waking up because we couldn’t sleep or felt groggy, quite the opposite, we were waking up on our own after only 6.5 hours of sleep feeling energized, rested and fully refreshed. This was quite the contrast to my usual wake-up after 8-9 hours of sleep, often still feeling out of it. It was also around the fourth week when my physical and mental energy and performance began to improve and go beyond what they’d been prior to my starting this diet. For the first time, I felt like I didn’t need or want caffeine. I had stable energy throughout the day—no peaks, no dips, no crashes—just total clarity and alertness from 4:30 am till about 9 pm. It was easier for me to stay motivated and focus. I wouldn’t say I was faster, stronger or had better endurance during my workouts, but I was less fatigued afterwards, less winded. I recovered faster. I stopped feeling irritable, sluggish, hungry, insatiable, and instead felt relaxed, vibrant and physically satisfied. I felt so incredible, in fact, I remember thinking Holy shit! Is this how it feels to be truly healthy? Now I understand why people who’ve experienced this can sometimes become so obsessive with what they eat! I want to feel like this all the time, maybe I’ll just continue eating this way. What’s more, I now haven’t experienced a tummyache or any sign of bloating in over a month!
Week 6, we flew to Thailand for a work project, and I slept through half the flight, and read the rest of the time. Normally, I feel so tired, groggy and out of it on flights that all I can do is watch something, listen to music or try to sleep, but I felt alert, awake and aroused enough to read. Jetlag wasn’t as much of an issue this trip as it had been in the past. I still managed to get in 5-6 hours of sleep each night, though I sometimes woke up earlier (between 2-5 am), still feeling exuberant. I stuck to my exercise and meditation routine, and did my best to catch some sun early in the morning to reset my body’s circadium rhythm. Knowing we had this Thailand trip coming up, Jeff and I decided to introduce a few things back into our diet a few days earlier so we could at least enjoy some of the delicious cuisine Thailand has to offer (see “Reintroductions” for more information about that).
It took me a few weeks to get to this point of feeling the best I’d ever felt in my life, my “windshield” was finally squeaky clean, and now I desperately wanted to maintain it. I became annoyed with the prospect of having to eat “unclean” foods in the near future and indulge in a few nights of drinking (my best friend’s bachelorette was coming up in a couple of weeks), but I also knew this lifestyle was never meant to be permanent. It is an elimination diet, after all; the whole point of which is to reintroduce foods to try and figure out what is causing problems within my body. Plus, eating this way wasn’t particularly sustainable for our lifestyle. While it feels incredible to have so much sober “clean” energy and clarity, we are still only in our early 30s, and it feels just as great (though in a different way) to wind down with a glass of wine or treat yourself to dessert every now and then.
Because we eliminated so many things and incorporated so many different diets (from Paleo/AIP to keto to low-FODMAP), there wasn’t a good way to isolate what specifically led to our upsurge in energy and mental clarity. Our theory is it had more to do with going ketogenic than AIP or low-FODMAP. Jeff doesn’t have digestive issues like I do, so it would have been unlikely for him to have experienced the same uptick in energy and mental clarity as a result of going AIP or low-FODMAP. We’d also gathered some anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues who’d gone keto and discovered they needed less sleep yet had more energy overall.
The way we decided which foods/food groups to reintroduce back into our diet first was based loosely on what we thought were the least likely culprits to cause issues in my gut, and dovetailing that with obligations we had coming up in the several weeks. We knew ahead of time our elimination diet would be coinciding with us being in Thailand, my hosting a bachelorette party in Utah, followed by a few days of running wedding errands as a Maid of Honor in Mexico.
Reintroductions can be done in a myriad of ways. One way is to reintroduce one food at a time for a period of 2-3 days and tracking any changes within the body. If there are no changes—no stomachaches, bloating, skin breakouts, weird poops, etc.—then you proceed with reintroducing another food. If you do experience a change in your body, then it’s likely that particular food is inflammatory or problematic for you, so you remove it, reset with a day or two of “clean” eating and then move on and reintroduce something else.
Because I had a lot of travel coming up, we needed something a little more efficient. Rather than reintroducing foods one by one, we decided to reintroduce one to two food groups simultaneously. The upside to this method is that it’s quicker and has the potential to save a lot of time. The downside is that it’s riskier. The more foods you reintroduce together, the harder it is to isolate what specifically is problematic. Our rationale was to just go for it and see what happens. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. If eating a handful of nuts and seeds causes bloating or indigestion, then I’ll reset, and slowly, painfully, re-introduce one type of nut or seed at a time. Still, it was a risk worth taking—re-introducing one to two food groups simultaneously meant we would be back to our pre-elimination diet diet within 3-4 weeks.
Towards the end of the fifth week going into the sixth, we decided to reintroduce nightshades as the first food group. I was pretty certain I didn’t have an autoimmune condition, and from what I could recall historically, nightshades and I were on good terms. Seeing as how so much of Thai food consists of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and the like, this seemed like a good category to reintroduce to my body. Nuts and seeds came next, after I’d had a few days to feel out nightshades, followed by non-carby foods high in polyols and oligosaccharides. Foods in the polyol group included: avocado, cauliflower, mushrooms, blackberries and others. Foods in the oligosaccharides group included: garlic, shallots, onions, pistacchios, cashews and others.
To my relief, none of these foods led to any inflammation or indigestion in my body—I was really worried I’d have to give up garlic and onions, which would have been devastating. When we reintroduced nuts and seeds, I made a point to limit my intake of them, especially nuts in raw, butter and milk form, and my body responded fine to that. We did our best to stay in ketosis (by avoiding starchy, high carb foods) throughout the reintroduction process.
There were a handful of food categories/groups we didn’t bother including in the reintroduction process as they weren’t a part of our usual diet anyway. These included:
Grains―wheat, oats, corn, bread, pasta, cornstarch, etc.
Legumes―soy, beans, peanuts, etc.
Omega-6 Rich Oils―soybean oil, safflower oil, corn oil, peanut oil, canola oil, etc.
Excess Fructose―honey, sugar, apple, mango, pear, watermelon, dried fruit, fruit juice, etc.
Food Additives―carrageenan, guar gum, aspartame, MSG, sulfates/sulfites, nitrates/nitrites, etc.
I was already aware of my negative reactions towards certain types of legumes and omega-6 rich oils, and given how infrequently we eat foods in the above categories, we deemed it unnecessary to re-introduce them. I was meticulous with my reintroductions up until my best friend’s bachelorette party, which was about eight weeks into the elimination process. My last, deliberate, reintroduction of a category was alcohol. I limited my intake and drank only tequila. My body, fortunately, received it without too much of a problem (outside of a very, very mild hangover—sorry, liver).
From there, my reintroductions grew sloppier and sloppier. On the last night of the bachelorette, at 11 pm, upon exhausting the last of my reserves in will power and self-restraint, I gave into a Tim-Tam, sold to me as the world’s most delicious snack ever created (only to be rivaled by Sweden’s Daim). Things went downhill from there, and while I didn’t experience a tummyache that night, I knew my windshield was no longer spotless. No more 4:30 am exuberant, sans alarm wake-ups.
The next day, I flew to Mexico. At this point, my circadium rhythm was all over the place. I’d been in two continents, three countries and three time zones in the span of a week. We had a menu-and-cake tasting the next day for my friend’s wedding, and I knew I’d have to go all in. Knowing that, it seemed pointless to try and eat “clean” for the rest of the time we were in Mexico. I told myself I’d reset once I was back to San Francisco, and to just enjoy the next few days. And I did. I indulged in cakes, desserts, tacos, empanadas, tequila and whatever else was put in front of me, but not without consequences. For the first time in nearly eight weeks, I had terrible stomachaches, bloating, gassiness and indigestion—three nights in a row from three different meals! It had taken me four weeks to feel the best I’d ever felt, and just one meal to ruin it all.
Once I got back to San Francisco, I took the week to reset, eating what we’d eaten during the first few weeks of elimination plus the few categories of food I’d properly reintroduced back into my body. After a week or so, I began to reintroduce a few more food categories but held off on alcohol and foods high in carbs. While I didn’t regularly wake up at 4:30 am again, my body eventually did readjust and settle in at a 5:30 wake up, which was good enough for me. By the eleventh week, I’d reintroduced everything we normally ate back into our rotation, including starches and higher carb foods such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, white rice, squash, etc., though we ate them in much smaller portions than we had in the past.
3 Months After THE Elimination Diet & Reintroduction PROCESS
At the start of this journey, I was desperate to figure out what was causing bloats, aches and gassiness in my gut region in spite of our fairly conscious and healthy way of eating. While I wasn’t as meticulous with my reintroductions as I should have been (I would recommend being slow and deliberate with your reintroductions and to seek guidance from a functional health coach), I’m happy to report I haven’t experienced any inflammation or indigestion since returning to our usual diet. I have had the occasional tummyache, bloating or gassiness when we eat out or when I indulge my sweet tooth a little too much. But while I still cannot say with certainty what caused it, I can say with certainty the elimination diet seems to have reset and done wonders for my gut. We are eating the same foods now as we did before embarking on this elimination diet, but I can go weeks, sometimes months, without having a reaction. Whereas prior to the elimination diet, I would have a tummyache three to four times a week (even when we cooked at home), I now have a tummyache once every couple of months, and it’s almost always from eating out, drinking or overindulgence.
So, was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Yes, especially if I start to experience more frequent stomach pains. It’s a fantastic tool to have in your toolbox. On a separate note, Jeff and I are actually planning on going keto again in a few weeks, for two to three months. Perhaps this time, we’ll be able to put to rest whether going keto was responsible for the reduction in quantity of sleep and the increase in quality of sleep, and energy.
I have a theory for why I was sleeping more (8-9 hours per night) and waking up feeling groggy and sluggish prior to going on our elimination diet. I was so often going to sleep with pain in the stomach region then, and this leads me to believe my body had to overwork to heal and reset itself during the night. This would also explain why I’ve needed less sleep (7-8 hours per night) since completing the elimination diet, and why I wake up feeling energized at 5:30 or 6 am without an alarm—I rarely go to sleep these nights with a tummyache and hardly ever wake up feeling unrested.
My final thoughts on this subject is that no one “diet” is sustainable long-term, unless you have a serious health condition requiring you to eat a very specific way. For most of us, I like to think of these diets as various tools in our toolbox that we can pull out and use when we need to. Our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors didn’t have or stick to one diet. They migrated and ate whatever they could hunt and forage from the land they lived on. They ate with the seasons. Sometimes, this meant fasting for a day, several days, and other times it meant feasting. Sometimes, this meant eating a restricted diet of fish and tubers for a few weeks, months even, and then switching to a totally different diet consisting of only fruit and veggies. The point is, they didn’t have one diet to last their lives, they had many that fluctuated and rotated with the changing seasons and landscape. So, while I don’t think it’s healthful to be a lifelong vegan, I don’t think it would mess our shit up to try it for a couple of weeks or months, and then transition to paleo, and then keto, so on and so forth. I think there are advantages to rotating through different diets (as long as a diet consisting only of sugar, soy and grains isn’t one of them).
After all, what is life if not the greatest experiment of all time?