I never thought I'd be able to do it.
Truly, I didn't. Even though I've always been a health conscious eater, even though I'm a Chinese Medicine practitioner and use nutrition as medicine in my life and in my practice, and even though it was digestive concerns that led me to Chinese Medicine in the first place, I'd still skillfully managed to escape it. I didn't think I had it in me. Not enough will power, not enough desire to even try to find the will power...
But then, somehow, I did it. The 'it'?
The Elimination Diet. What is the Elimination Diet?
It's an eating protocol that is used in order to uncover your food sensitivities. For three weeks you eliminate the most common food sensitivity triggers, and then reintegrate them into your diet - slowly and strategically - to learn which foods you react to. It is not a calorie restricted diet. The goal is not to lose weight (although many do as a natural side effect of optimizing liver function), it's a step in learning how to heal.
It’s difficult; the list of things you cease to consume - for approximately three weeks, sometimes longer - is a lengthy list, including: gluten, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, sweeteners, nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants), eggs, citrus fruit, avocados and coconut… It's difficult.
So why would I feel the need to do this? Especially since I'd already given up gluten. I'd already given up dairy. I already pass on refined sugars. And if I'm eating desserts they are likely made with black beans or avocado or other ingredients that my family might roll their eyes at and not even consider dessert-worthy. So why might I feel the need to do the elimination diet?
At first I tried to ignore the voice that said, 'Do this, Laura.' Because I reeeeeally didn’t want to go through this. But the need was strong and it came from all directions. The need came because, despite my scrutiny with what I consume, I had to admit I was often still bloated. The need came because I didn't feel I had as much energy as I should. Because my skin, though much better than during the years before Chinese Medicine, is still highly susceptible to breakouts. Because when I'm sad, I comfort myself with food. Because when I'm excited, I celebrate with food. Because when faced with challenges, I don't feel as tough as I think that, deep down, I am. Because I wasn't proud that I had learned (that is, I had trained my neural pathways) to associate creativity - especially creative writing - with cups of coffee.
And also because, as a Chinese Medicine practitioner, if I decide to recommend the Elimination Challenge to my patients, then it is my believe that I better have gone through it myself. If you practice this medicine well, you live well. Practicing this medicine makes me stronger. And I wanted, more than anything, to feel stronger. Mentally stronger, that is (though the increase in physical strength that came from the elimination diet was a bonus). I wanted to feel better equipped to deal with the bumps in the road that life brings.
Please understand, this wasn't a need for excess control. Often eating disorders surface when there is a need to feel like you can control something in your life. This was not that. This was a need to exercise my determination, my will power, and my commitment to myself and my health.
What was it like doing the Elimination Diet?
I prepared myself for misery. And for the first week, I was pretty miserable. I stayed away from people as much as I could, resigned to my grumpiness (and mourning heavily with the rest of the world over the loss of David Bowie - that timing did not help the matter!). By the time week two rolled around, however, the effect was taking hold. I was surprisingly...energized.
At the end of the challenge, I did discover some of my hidden food sensitivities. So it worked. However, what interested me even more were the things I didn't expect to learn along the way. As the weeks progressed, they were chock-full of lessons - some of them real gems.
Here are some of the things I learned from doing the Elimination Diet challenge:
I have more will-power than I thought. It's not that some magical powers emerged out of nowhere and possessed me to do this. I just did it. Having overcome my resistance, I am a firm believer that anyone can do it with the right motivators in place and the right supports. I'll get to those a little further on...
I have emotional attachments to certain foods. Yep, guilty. I think most of us do, even those of us who are educated in nutrition and who are health conscious eaters. And it doesn't have to be "bad foods" that one has an emotional attachment to. When you do the elimination diet, these attachments become glaringly obvious. If you're wondering what yours might be, they are usually the foods you eat that you rationalize with, "Oh I don't NEED this, but I'll just have it today." And then the next day you say, "Oh I don't NEED this, but I'll just have it today." And so on.
It feels great to not succumb to your every craving. Chinese Medicine refers to 'unfulfilled desires' as a contributing factor to disease. Buddhism calls unfulfilled desires a form of suffering. And life is full of unfulfilled desires! Learning how to live with or even let go of these desires greatly reduces our suffering. Like meditation, this elimination diet challenged me to step aside and witness my cravings as something separate from myself (much in the same way that meditation aims to separate us from our thought patterns). When you succeed at this, when you are able to talk to your cravings and say, "I see you, but I'm choosing a different path today" and you take responsibility for making decisions that benefit your health rather than deplete it, you will feel awesome. It's like putting on your best pair of adult pants. Ever seen the meme with the dog that says "Don't make me adult today"? (If not, here: http://imgur.com/gallery/VOjekR9 You're welcome.) Well, it's pretty much the opposite of that of that. It's empowering. This can be summed up with a very apropos quote from angel investor and philosopher Naval Ravikant: "Learning how to break habits is a very important meta-skill that can serve you better in life than almost anything else." Building healthy habits is important, and so is ditching other ones.
Sugar is sneaky. More to the point, the sugar industry is sneaky. It's practically criminal how many foods and beverages refined sugars are snuck into. Even herbal teas! I ended up at a Starbucks during this elimination diet, and I obediently ordered a caffeine-free tea, bored as I was with the thought of it. I sipped the tea, and my tastebuds must have already been starting to adjust to not having excessively sweet tastes, because I immediately thought, 'This tastes a little too sweet'... I logged into Starbucks' free wifi and searched the ingredients. Disappointingly, there is sugar in a Starbucks Passion tea. Sigh. I mean, why? Even to my tastebuds, it's simply not necessary.
Healthy snacks can actually taste good. You know, it's not so bad when food tastes like...food. My fav snack from this elimination challenge? Roasted sweet potatoes and parsnips. Packed 'em in a little jar - bam. Dynamite snack that kept hunger and sweet cravings at bay.
Groups lift you up; they are an asset when it comes to achieving a goal. I did this elimination challenge with a group of people from the Roncesvalles Herbal Clinic and Dispensary. http://theherbalclinicanddispensary.com/the-practitioners-clinic/ Remember how I mentioned that anyone can do this with the right motivators and support? Having a motivating force like a group was and is extremely beneficial when it comes to seeing through a challenge such as this. A group helps with your accountability for and commitment to your progress. We all need community. We are stronger together.
Good friends will support you. Rather than judging you for taking this month or so to support your health and learn about your body, good friends will say, "You're not drinking alcohol this month? Good for you, let's have tea instead." If any friend or partner tries to make you feel bad about your decision, then it is likely they are insecure about their own ability to do something as challenging as what you're doing.
In order to best succeed at this elimination diet (and to eat well in general), you need to be organized and proactive. If this doesn't sound like your nature, don't worry, it just takes a bit of practice. It's much harder if not nearly impossible to eat well if you wait until you're hungry to put a meal together. If I waited until I was really hungry to eat, I'd go for the quickest thing I could get - therefore probably not the healthiest. When you commit to the elimination challenge, you commit to planning meals more than you might otherwise. I thought it might be a nuisance, but it feels really good to place such consideration on how you're going to nourish your body! Especially when your body starts to thank you back.
My body loves whole grains. Our society is on a big no-grain kick at the moment. The paleo diet movement, for example, has gained momentum. And I'm not going to knock it. There are benefits to it, but it really depends on an individual's constitution. When I practice Chinese Medicine, I work with people as they are - individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all diet. According to Chinese Medicine, if you have a particular diagnosis of a weak spleen/stomach system (aka "Spleen Qi Deficiency"), then you may want to reach for the whole grains (I prefer gluten-free ones, such as rice or quinoa). I don't do well on breads, even gluten-free ones, but whole grains are a different story. Whole grains made my digestive system super happy - meaning more efficient assimilation, absorption, and elimination. I was eating plenty of vegetables and fish and nuts as well, but whole grains were a key component in the meals I ate. I lost a bit of excess weight on this diet, too.
Cleaning up your inside world makes you want to clean up your outside world. You know the saying 'as within, so without'? It's the idea that what happens on a microcosmic level happens on a macrocosmic level. During this challenge, I went on a major de-cluttering spree in my living space. A super purge. A reorganization. It felt great. Clean, calm and peaceful - inside and out. It's fascinating how clarity within leads to clarity without.
Acupuncture helps everything!!! Seriously. Three exclamation marks for that one. Getting acupuncture at least once per week during this challenge helped to take away headaches, lessen cravings, and improve my mood and energy. Three weeks isn't actually that long. It sounds long. It can feel long, especially at the beginning. But it's not that long. Once it's over you're thinking, Oh, it's done?
Home is on the inside. A philosophical reflection for you here. As a result of feeling better in my body, I felt more at peace wherever I was and with whatever changes were happening around me. My body is my home.
...So was it worth it? A resounding 'yes'.
Thinking you'd like to try the elimination diet? Or do you have digestive concerns that you'd like to discuss and get support for? I'm here to field any questions, and I also offer free consultations.
Author: Laura Burns
Healing Arts & Creative Arts. Let's inspire.