Celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Joe Manganiello have touted the virtues of an elimination diet, which involves taking a break from certain foods to see if you feel better once they're gone. But does this actually work — and who exactly can it work for? According to American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology allergist David Stukus, MD, elimination diets can benefit people who suffer from gastrointestinal problems without a known cause. Contrary to popular belief, their goal is not to identify a food allergy, an immune reaction that's usually obvious to the allergic person and calls for complete avoidance of a food. It's to identify an intolerance — a negative response typically resulting from digestive issues. Symptoms of a food intolerance include abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and loose stools. These problems can obviously come from other sources, though, so don't jump to the conclusion that you have a food intolerance without consulting your doctor about other possible explanations. Typically, symptoms that stem from a food intolerance will last for several weeks and reach their peak after you eat. If you do suspect that you have a food intolerance, there are two ways to go about an elimination diet, says Stukus. One is to stop eating several foods at once and then reintroduce them one by one to see when your issues come back. The other is to remove one food at a time to see when your symptoms go away, and then reintroduce them one by one to double check. Stukus recommends the second method, since it gives a clearer idea of what's contributing to what. Whichever option you choose, make sure you're recording your symptoms during different stages of the diet so that you have an objective measure of each food's impact on you. Otherwise, you could fall prey to the placebo effect. You should also make sure to spend about two weeks without each food and another two bringing it back before drawing any conclusions so that you can gather enough information. There's no one-size-fits-all elimination diet, says Stukus, so talk to your doctor about which foods you might want to try eliminating. Gluten and dairy are two common intolerances (though not everyone who thinks they have a food intolerance actually has one).
Keep in mind that an elimination diet should not be used simply as a way to improve your health. If you don't have any signs of a food intolerance, there's no need for it, Stukus says. And even if you do, going on an elimination diet without considering your options can cause you to overlook other potential problems that need addressing. Plus, you risk depriving yourself of nutrients if you don't make an effort to get them elsewhere — not to mention, avoiding specific foods can just be a hassle. "As anyone who has tried and failed at following a diet [knows], elimination diets can cause undue hardship, emotional strain, and decreased quality of life," Stukus says. So, if you've been suffering from digestive difficulties for a while and can't figure out where they're coming from, you might want to ask your doctor whether an elimination diet could work for you. If you haven't, though, spare yourself the trouble that inevitably comes along with restricting what you eat.