Why Food Elimination Diets Don’t Work to Heal Your Gut

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Have you tried food elimination diets to heal your gut and ‘food sensitivities' without longterm success? Or maybe you're struggling with Leaky Gut, IBS or SIBO and searching for relief? In this post, we share why food elimination diet plans don't work (and how they often cause more harm) and how to heal your gut without resorting to food restriction.

Why food elimination diets don't work to heal your gut

This guest post is by Claire Carlton, a Registered Dietitian and Owner of the virtual nutrition practice, Nourish With Claire, LLC where she helps clients nationwide find relief from digestive disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. As a specialist in nutrition for gastrointestinal health, she guides clients through her 4 step framework to unearth the root of chronic symptoms and help them discover lasting wellness.

Claire believes the mixed messages available on social media and other outlets have led people to a state of confusion and overwhelm where they resort to extreme methods of restriction and dieting, disguised as the ultimate path to gut health. She is passionate about working closely with clients to dispel myths around nutrition fads while developing a personalized approach to digestive health that allows for wellness without the obsession.

With a Master's degree in Nutrition combined with additional training in the areas of Integrative and Functional Nutrition and Intuitive Eating, Claire has created a holistic approach that focuses on one's relationship with food while integrating gentle nutrition and lifestyle strategies that address the root cause of their health concerns. This method allows clients to step away from diet culture while they create mindful and sustainable habits to support their health and wellness goals.

Over to you, Claire!

Woman with long blonde hair sitting on a bench in a turquoise turtleneck.

As a Registered Dietitian who helps patients suffering from chronic gastrointestinal (GI) conditions, I’ve seen my fair share of gut health miracle cures, juice cleanses and elimination diets that offer false hope for a quick fix. I’m here to set the record straight on nutrition and optimal gut health.

The unpopular truth: you can’t Whole 30 your way to a healthy gut. The gut microbiome and its role in health is an evolving area of research and we know that caring for this delicate ecosystem is vital in maintaining good digestive health.

Read on to learn how you can manage your chronic digestive concerns and boost the health of your microbiome without unnecessary food restriction.  

4 Strategies To Manage Digestive Problems Without Dietary Restriction

1) Get To The Root: Test, Don’t Guess

Often, I will have clients reach out to me who have “tried everything” when it comes to managing their bloat, constipation, diarrhea or other digestive woes. They’ve spent time and money following elimination diets, taking expensive supplements or removing suspicious foods without the guidance of a professional.

These methods offer temporary symptom relief, at best, and often cause more confusion and stress around food. On further investigation, many of them have never had a proper work up to evaluate what might be going on. 

One of the most important things that can be done early on in a person’s digestive health journey is to test, not guess. If the problems haven’t been evaluated by a doctor, a visit to a qualified gastroenterologist (a doctor that specializes in the digestive system) is essential.

Thin brunette woman standing at an open fridge.

This will rule out serious conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) through various diagnostic tests including blood work, radiologic exams, endoscopy or colonoscopy. Depending on what is found, treatment may include a combination of medication, nutrition and lifestyle interventions. 

Once you have a clear diagnosis or picture of the imbalances that exist in your digestive system, it’s easier to fine-tune a nutrition and lifestyle plan that meets your unique needs without unnecessary food restriction. Ultimately, a good digestive workup will light the path to symptom relief.  

In my integrative and functional nutrition practice, I usually run additional testing to further analyze digestive health. Stool testing helps to assess the landscape of a client’s microbiome. This information guides nutrition counseling and is more about what foods can we add in vs. take away to enhance diversity and abundance the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut.

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Some clients may require a special type of breath test which helps to measure whether or not bacteria are present in the small intestine. When we think about the good bacteria in our gut, the vast majority should reside in the large bowel.

As a result of surgery, infections, low stomach acid or other problems, bacteria can end up invading the small intestine in large numbers which leads to symptoms of gas, bloating and distension, constipation and diarrhea to name a few. Eradicating the bacteria and addressing the root cause of why a client developed Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) will allow them to tolerate a wide variety of foods without triggering symptoms.      

Randomly selecting foods to remove from your diet, following specific dietary protocols or spending hundreds of dollars on supplements without having an appropriate nutrition and medical work up is like playing darts with a blindfold on. We’ve got to know what we’re working with, otherwise these drastic lifestyle measures prove to be fruitless (pun intended). 

A white bowl with broccolini and other vegetables being held in a hand, with the other hand squeezing fresh lime on top.

2) Eat Regularly and Slowly 

It’s no surprise that in today’s times, we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, making it easy for important forms of self-care to fall through the cracks. Prioritizing time to enjoy a meal is one of the most basic forms of self-care. Juggling life’s responsibilities is a challenge, which often means regular nourishment becomes an afterthought. Eating in the car, at the desk, in a meeting or simply skipping meals altogether is the norm. 

The truth is, our digestive system thrives with a consistent meal schedule. I’ve seen the busy mom, college student or executive who slams a few cups of coffee in the morning (on a good day they have toast), grabs a quick energy bar for lunch, and by the end of the day, their body is so depleted they end up eating a huge meal that leads to painful bloating, acid reflux or other symptoms. Establishing a regular meal pattern is helpful to regulate the process of digestion and fuel your brain and body to conquer the day. 

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Stuffing down a sandwich in 10 minutes is a recipe for a symptom flare. Fast eating often leaves no time to adequately chew food, leading to a cascade of uncomfortable stomach problems.

If possible, take a look at your daily routine and try to schedule in time to sit down and eat your meals for about 30 minutes. Bonus if you can leave your workspace! This allows you to slow down and thoroughly chew your food, setting the stage for optimal digestion.

The digestive process begins in the mouth through enzymes in our saliva. Chewing well, about 30 times per bite of food, helps produce adequate saliva to begin breaking down carbohydrates. It’s not necessarily practical to count the number of times you chew every single time, but it can be helpful early on as you practice slowing down and eventually you’ll get a feel for what is appropriate. Practice this tip and feel the difference in your daily digestion almost immediately. 

A woman holding a white coffee mug in her hands with a Christmas tree blurred in the background.

3) Sip Tea 

Of the numerous benefits of drinking tea, in this case herbal tea, the digestive health perks are perhaps some of the most interesting. Both peppermint and ginger tea are a wonderful addition to your toolbox when it comes to managing stomach ailments without dietary restriction. 

Aside from its culinary uses, ginger root has long been used to alleviate gastrointestinal complaints. Specifically, ginger can be considered a motility agent, meaning it aids with gut peristalsis, the wave-like muscle contractions that propel food contents through the GI tract. This explains why ginger is effective in reducing symptoms of nausea, gas and bloating (source).

Tea is one of the easiest ways to consume ginger and many find that sipping on this warming, spicy beverage between meals helps prevent post-meal bloating. Some people may require larger doses of ginger root to reap the therapeutic benefits, which can be found in supplement form. For optimal dosage recommendations, check with your healthcare provider. 

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A glass mug filled with Spearmint tea with the tea bag and gold spoon on the side.

Peppermint is another effective herb that offers soothing properties to calm an angry digestive system. As an antispasmodic, peppermint relaxes smooth muscle along the intestinal tract and thereby reduces symptoms of cramping and pain (source). Those with IBS may find this specifically helpful in mitigating flares of their condition.

Peppermint tea is a relaxing way to enjoy these benefits, however, some may require peppermint oil capsules before meals for maximum symptom reduction.

Due to its muscle relaxing properties, peppermint relaxes the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach, allowing stomach acid to flow up into the esophagus. For this reason, those with a history of acid reflux should avoid using peppermint in any form. 

Stocking up on these two herbal teas is a great strategy to aid in symptom relief, while also staying hydrated and savoring the present moment. How might you squeeze in a little tea time each day?

A variety of foods on the counter: protein bars, fruit, lunchmeat, cookies, cheese and more.

4) Increase Variety In The Diet

The fear of adding new foods to the diet is very real for those suffering from chronic GI conditions. Unfortunately, this fear and resistance to expand variety in the diet is a big part of what keeps many people stuck in a state of poor gut health with suboptimal digestion.

We are led to believe (via authors of popular diets, social media influencers and the media) that removing x, y or z foods is the path to healing the gut. And while each individual may certainly have foods that trigger their symptoms, more often than not, entire macronutrient groups or food groups are being restricted or eliminated for extended periods of time.

What many don’t understand is that a restrictive approach to eating is actually more harmful to your gut health and microbiome in the long term. 

The Risks of Food Elimination Diets

A popular plan for management of IBS and other GI disorders is the Low FODMAP diet. FODMAP is an acronym for various types of carbohydrate foods found in fruits, dairy, vegetables and grains (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols). Bacteria in the gut feed on these carbohydrate foods which induces symptoms in many individuals.

Fortunately, this diet is heavily studied and does in fact reduce symptoms of gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea by reducing the quantity of high FODMAP carbohydrates consumed, but it does have a downside. Many embark on the Low FODMAP diet without guidance from a qualified professional, the diet isn’t meant to be followed long term, but often people feel so good while following it, they don’t go through the process of reintroducing foods in order to identify their triggers or personal FODMAP threshold (how much they can tolerate without a return in symptoms).

Research has shown that this diet actually reduces the quantity of beneficial gut bacteria by starving these bugs in the colon (source). Fibers from high FODMAP carbohydrate foods serve as food for the good bacteria that live in the large intestine, and as a consequence of restriction, the numbers of good gut bugs are significantly reduced. This causes problems because these good bacteria produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that aid with the integrity of the gut lining and prevent intestinal permeability a.k.a leaky gut. 

It’s not just the Low FODMAP diet that has potential disadvantages to building a healthy intestinal microbiome, but also popular diets used for weight loss including a low carbohydrate, Ketogenic or Paleo diet.

Many of these protocols restrict or eliminate intake of whole grains, beans and legumes, which we know are valuable to building a robust gut microbiome. Similar effects on the gut microbiome can be seen in people following these diets due to the restriction of high fiber carbohydrate foods that fuel good colonic bacteria (source; source).   

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A counter with a variety of crackers, chips, and cookies sitting in packages.

The good news is our microbiome is malleable, it can begin to shift in a matter of days in response to changes in our diet. Circling back to tip #1, if we don’t have a full picture of the dysfunction and imbalances in an individual's unique case, it’s unwise to jump into food elimination.

When we have a clear picture of a person’s anatomy, diagnosis and symptoms, we can work to get to the root of the symptoms through personalized lifestyle and nutrition interventions that often require little to no restrictions to the diet. With a focus on consuming a wide variety of whole foods, you’re on the path to good gut health. 

To summarize, it is possible to manage and even heal chronic digestive complaints without extreme dietary measures. Nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle and in order to solve your unique case, a full work up is necessary. There are some basic lifestyle recommendations that anyone can follow to improve gut health as discussed in this article, however, if you’re feeling stuck and symptoms aren’t easing up, remember to work with a health professional well versed in treating gastrointestinal health concerns to receive a personalized approach to healing.    

Thank you, Claire, for sharing your wisdom with us!

You can learn more about Claire's virtual nutrition practice, Nourish With Claire on her website or book a FREE discovery call today! Find and follow her on Instagram @nourishwithclaire

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