01 July 2008

How to keep it simple on an elimination diet

One of my favorite blogs is The Daily Headache, which has a migraine forum. Recently, someone in the forum was asking for help following an elimination diet. She had read my blog but apparently not found an answer to her question: “What can one actually eat while on an elimination diet?” Good question, especially if you haven’t ever tried one.

The thing is, I have long suspected that migraineurs (those who suffer from migraine) who complain about elimination diets and avoidance of common triggers have either never really tried to do it properly or have not suffered enough to be willing to give up foods that they love in order to buy a little pain-free time. I say this last part with sincere sympathy for my fellow migraineurs, as I was, until recently, in that category. I was that person who proclaimed I would NEVER give up coffee or chocolate. Well, never say never. I have given both up, at least with rare exceptions, and I can honestly say that it is quite possible to live without them. Abstaining from caffeine actually gives you energy, especially if you also abstain from alcohol most of the time. 

Having said that, elimination diets can look bleak. I have read about studies done in England in the 1980’s where the subjects ate nothing but rice and lamb or chicken for five days. Their headaches disappeared at that point and they then started to reintroduce foods to see which ones brought them back. I think when some people read about these diets that this is the point where they take things a bit too literally. I think it is safe to say that the subjects of the group probably seasoned the rice and chicken and lamb (with at least salt and pepper). I think they probably used cooking oils of some kind. I do not think one needs to go on a prison ration in order to try an elimination diet. But I could be wrong. It is just my opinion.

I began eliminating food gradually. Four years ago on the advice of my neurologist, I gave up regular coffee and tea, diet soft drinks and other diet foods with aspartame in them, msg, and nitrites. I cut back on the chocolate and almost entirely eliminated alcohol. It didn't really lessen my headaches, but I thought it was a good idea, especially since I am over 40 and caffeine and alcohol drain your adrenals and can leave you feeling exhausted. 18 Months ago I learned that my adrenal hormones were low, that I was gluten intolerant and had mild allergies to a lot of foods, many of which are considered major headache triggers: aged cheeses, yogurt, certain nuts, beans and spices and corn sugar. I decided to eliminate all of them for 9 months to two years while I strengthened my adrenals to see if I would outgrow the sensitivity. This actually did produce some positive results. 

While I was doing that,  I tried a yeast elimination diet for one month. I found the diet in a book by Steven F. Hotze, M.D. called Hormones, Health, and Happiness (page 236). Basically you eliminate all sugar and sugar substitutes except xylitol, all vinegars, alcohol, dairy, grains and for the first two weeks, all fruit and butter. What can you eat? All meats, fish, vegetables (go easy on the starchy ones) dried beans, eggs, avocados, black olives, olive oil, lemons and limes, herbal teas. For someone like me who loves good food and loves to cook, I found this challenging at first. But, I discovered some interesting things along the way. Lemon and lime juice and olive oil are all you really need to make a salad dressing. Add some garlic and voila! Water and tomatoes and chicken broth go along way in any dish. Have a recipe that calls for vinegar or wine? Try substituting water and herbs or broth or tomato paste and water. You really do not need the wine/vinegar. Experiment with herbs, especially fresh ones. Also try Bragg’s Aminos instead of soy sauce. It is not fermented, so better for avoiding headache.

The hardest part of the yeast elimination diet was breakfast. I was used to having cereal of some sort or toast (gluten-free of course). On this diet I ate all sorts of things. One morning I had sauteed filet of sole and vegetables! Guess what else? I dropped 5 lbs without really trying. I did have dreams of eating potatoes again (not allowed on the diet) and dairy. But in the end, I didn't go back to dairy right away. I found out I was mildly allergic to cow’s milk so I avoided dairy completely for six months and milk for one year. I now quite enjoy soy milk. I also found I had fewer headaches while following this diet.

So I guess my message is that elimination diets do not have to be bleak. I managed to retool most of my standard recipes to fit into the yeast elimination diet. Afterwards, as I reintroduced foods back into my diet, it was easier to see what I reacted negatively to. (I should mention that I keep a food diary.) When reintroducing, you need to do one food every four days. Takes awhile, but it is worth the wait. The yeast elimination diet showed me that any elimination diet is do-able. Last Fall I tackled eliminating all migraine triggers for two months and then gradually reintroduced them. I discovered that most of them did not effect me, but the ones that do were a surprise (i.e. red onion). I do not think I would have found them if I hadn’t followed an elimination routine. By the way, I still do not drink regular coffee or tea or diet soft drinks and now I am steering clear of chocolate except for rare occasions. I have a glass of wine once in awhile, but not every week and certainly not every day. I feel much better and that is more important to me. I have my life back. I can work most days. This is huge for me.

If you still have questions about what to eat on elimination diets, look at my recipes. If they seem to have things in them that are not on your diet, think about what a reasonable work around would be. Then look at other recipes. See how you could adapt them. It is really not as hard as you may think. Good luck and good eating.

Karen, herself


GAR said...

thank you for sharing this, Karen.


water said...

When I first read Buchholz, I decided to try it the very next day. When my husband and friends saw that I had given up CHOCOLATE, they knew I was deadly serious. I wasn't talking about "just a headache."

I wasn't willing to give up dairy though, without seeing it in black and white, so I took a test from Enterolab.