I don’t just talk the talk -I walk the walk too.
For the past month and a half I’ve been going through the motions of both keeping a food diary and being on an elimination diet. It was tough at times, and tears were shed, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Thanks to a little bit of perseverance (and a whole lot of daydreaming about ice cream!) I’ve discovered all of my food triggers and (as of now, fingers crossed) my skin is just as clear as it was before that first little patch of itchy red skin appeared over a year ago!
If that’s not enough incentive to start an elimination diet then I’m not sure what is.
The Elimination Diet | What to Expect
There is a few things that nobody mentions when it comes to elimination diets. From the tears, flares, cravings, healing, (and even losing weight!), I’m here to highlight the highs and the lows of this diet that has changed my life for the better… despite the hardships!
Stage 1: The Refusal
At first, the elimination diet can seem a bit daunting. At least 23 days without fast food, alcohol, dairy, eggs, and gluten (just to name a few!) can make anybody shake in their boots.
What am I supposed to eat? Am I stuck drinking water and eating ice for a month? I’d rather die.
Stage 2: The Breaking PointI thought the same thing, but eventually everyone finds their breaking point. Where enough is finally enough, and you refuse to let eczema destroy your life any longer. After this breaking point it’s easy to push past the fear of starting this (daunting) diet. For me, this breaking point was a day or two after My Terrible Mistake. With my skin (which took weeks to partially heal from the last flare) becoming absolutely destroyed in mere hours, enough was finally enough. I decided I was no longer going to live in fear, clueless about what would absolutely destroy my skin, cause itchy sleepless nights, and what wouldn’t.
Stage 3: The Beginning
Where you take the plunge and vow that for at least 23 days you will keep a food diary and remove the top 8 eczema triggers (plus fast food and alcohol).
Good for you! This step alone deserves a huge pat on the back!
Stage 4: The Discovery
While daunting at first, this seemingly restrictive diet quickly becomes less of a menacing grizzly bear and more like a teddy bear right before your eyes. It is at this stage where you discover that there really is a whole lot of food you can still eat and enjoy! Push a little further and you’ll see that there is not much food you’ll be lacking -even when it comes to desserts! In fact, I enjoyed many desserts such as ‘Dad’s Goodie Squares‘ (which taste so good you think they must be bad for you!), ‘Choco-la-ti-da‘ (for fondue) and ‘Peanut Butta’ Cookies‘ with no fear of a nasty flare up. Some of these did include nuts (read the ‘Cheater’ section down below for an explanation!) however, there are still plenty of desserts you can enjoy without nuts such as ‘Nice Cream‘ or ‘Gluten and Dairy Free Cookies‘ -so don’t be afraid to experiment!
Besides my killer sweet tooth insisting I eat dessert, common staples for me included fruit, vegetables,salads, chicken, salmon, rice, and smoothies. I ate whenever I wanted, as much as I wanted and never felt like I was lacking. Not once did I ever count calories or portion servings. I listened to my body and ate real food -mostly plants.
Side note: Words cannot even describe just how much fruit and veggies I ate. It was A LOT as they were perfect to grab when you’re feeling hungry right now, when you’re on the go, or when you needed a quick snack!
Of course, at this stage you are also still discovering any hidden sensitivities that don’t consist of the top eight triggers (thanks to your trusty food diary!). For many people this can be anything from nightshades to even herbal tea! So again, keep writing in your food diary.
Note: At this stage, some people’s symptoms actually get worse. Keep at it, and allow your body to get it out of it’s system and it will get better in no time. If there are strong links between what you ate and your flare, remove the suspected food culprit from your diet and re-introduce it at the end of your diet once again.
Stage 5: The Cravings
Despite all the yummy and healthy foods you’re eating (and the fact you’re eating as much as you want!) sometimes cravings sneak up. If you’re anything like me, wanting sweets happens at least every other day!
To get through those 23 days (I actually did 30) and the tough cravings I had several tactics:
- I made sure to go through my diet one day at a time. “One day.” I would say, “I just have to get through today without eating ___________ (insert: pizza, ice cream, chocolate, bread -you name it) “. Then the next day I would tell myself it again, and again, and again. Focusing on one day rather than 23+ of no naughty (but delicious foods) kept me feeling motivated rather than distraught at how many days I had left.
- If my killer sweet tooth really started acting up, I would quiet it down with a serving (or two!) of a tummy safe desserts. Again, I ate what I wanted, as much as I wanted (as long as it was tummy safe of course).
- I carried tummy safe food with me at all times. If I got hungry, I wouldn’t be tempted to eat something bad simply because it was there.
Over time as your skin begins to improve, the desire for naughty foods disappears. Choosing between healthy, itch free skin and 20 minutes of naughty foods becomes a no brainer. Eventually I could watch people eat ice cream, cake, pizza, chocolate -you name it and not be fazed.
Stage 6: The Biggest Obstacle
At some point within your 23 days, the biggest obstacles comes to surface: Eating at other people’s homes or perhaps worse, restaurants. At this stage, eating food you didn’t prepare can feel like a game of Russian Roulette. You don’t know exactly what’s in this food and whether or not it will affect you. On top of it all, having to be the one people have to accommodate for can be awkward and embarrassing. Refusing food a host has made for you or sending food back to the kitchen can make you feel even worse.
Only once during my 30 days did I accidently eat food at a friends house that once again, ruined my hands and destroyed my courage. I wept for hours, and hours, and hours. To this day, I’m not sure what was in it that made me flare but I suspect it was some sort of dairy.
Even now that I’m off the super restricitive diet -eating at friends homes or restaurants is an intimidating event. Check out this guide on How to Eat At Friends and Loved Ones Homes With Dietary Restrictions for some tips that saved me along the way!
Stage 7: The HealingOver the weeks, you’ll notice your skin getting better and better! There really is no better feeling than waking up from a peaceful, itch free sleep, with healthy and happy skin.
Stage 8: The Unexpected Fear
As the end of the diet draws near, butterflies of both delight and fear dance in your stomach. This stage is Re-introduction, where you learn what foods you can tolerate, and what you must go without. This stage was the scariest, even more so than the Russian Roulette feeling of eating at restaurants. When you’ve worked so hard getting your skin so clear and itch-free, it becomes very difficult to expose yourself to foods that might make you flare. Alas, to finish the diet and know once and for all the foods we can and can’t tolerate, it must be done. This can be a bit heart breaking, but in the end you’ll be better for it.
For me, fear danced in my stomach more than delight did. So much that I actually put off introducing certain foods like gluten and eggs for a lot longer than I needed to. When I finally did try gluten, I went straight to my favorite bagel that I’ve been missing. That was a BIG mistake, especially because when I finally was ready to try gluten I didn’t even bother reading the ingredients which included my food devil -dairy.
So I ate this bagel I’ve been dearly missing and the very next day bubbles surfaced under my skin. Once again, I cried for hours, and hours, and hours mourning gluten’s part in my life. When I told my mother what happened, she just shook her head and jokingly scolded my choice for re-introduction. She insisted that I try again, this time with a simple bread.
I was scared, but I did. For days I anxiously awaited another flare….but nothing happened. Anxious I tried once more, and nothing surfaced. To my delight, wheat and gluten could once again be added to my diet! That was a hard lesson that reminded me to pay attention to the ingredients.
Dairy was a whole other obstacle and the very last one to be introduced. No surprise, I was terrified. I didn’t want to. I’d seen the damage this devil caused in the past and I wasn’t ready to invite it back to wreak havoc on my body again. So I put it off for days, and days, and days. My mother suggested that if I was gonna go down, might as well eat something I really missed -like icecream.
A plan was born to get a Dairy Queen Cake with the words ‘Doomsday’ written on it and… I almost did it. Again, I got scared. I already knew I was lactose intolerant, and even if I didn’t react eczema wise (like I was 98% sure I would) I didn’t want to suffer the other bodily consequences of eating dairy when you’re lactose intolerant! If you don’t know what I mean… first of all lucky you and second of all… to paint a pretty picture it’s a lot of bloating and poop. Yay…
I didn’t wind up eating dairy, and I don’t regret it at all. My terrible mistake, my lactose intolerance, and my food diary all alluded to the fact that dairy was my culprit.
Stage 9: ThE End & Other Surprises
A couple weeks have gone by and with my skin completely healed (again, fingers crossed it stays this way!) I am one happy girl! I discovering my only food culprit and make efforts to stay well away from it. I bake and cook with coconut milk, use a coconut butter, and even found a coconut ice cream that is to die for! As for calcium, my sources include dark leafy greens, nuts, chia seeds, and salmon just to name a few. To my delight, a couple of unexpected surprises came out of this whole thing.
First and probably the most important, this habit I developed for eating healthy foods and mostly plants has stuck with me even after the diet. On very, very, very, rare occasions, I reach for something pre-packaged. For the most part though, my diet still consists of fruits, veggies, salmon, chicken, salads, rice, and smoothies… with the welcome addition of eggs, nuts, and wheat!
Second, while eating whatever I wanted -even when indulging in tummy safe desserts I had lost some weight! While I didn’t go on this diet for that purpose, it was a pretty great bonus!
I trust that with my new found habit in place, I’ll keep the pounds off and keep my skin clear!
Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater
You get what you put into this diet. If you cut corners and cheat, this diet isn’t likely to pay off in the way that you hope. In the end, the only person you’re cheating and hurting is yourself.
That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that I cheated too.
I’m only human after all.
However, it’s important to note what I did cheat on. I never decided to have eggs, bread, or milk the one day and then swear off them for the next little while. That is inconsistency and provides inconsistent results. The exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here.
On the contrary, I cheated by including an entire group early on. Swearing that as soon as I noticed any flares linked to this food group, I would remove it entirely. The group I included three days after starting my elimination diet was peanuts and nuts. I had never noticed an adverse reaction to them before and I desperately needed some snack fuel that would keep me full for hours when I was busy working or out and about exploring (like going to Ing’s Mine -which was AMAZING!).
So yes, I cheated too. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to cheat on this diet, pick an entire food group early on and stick with it. No caving into bread cravings one day and then swearing off of it the next few. But remember, you get what you put into this diet -the more you remove (and the less you cheat) the better!
What if this doesn't work for me?
If this diet didn’t work for you, you need to take a reflect inwards and be 100% honest with yourself. As above, the only person you’re cheating (and hurting!) is yourself.
- Did you fully commit to staying on the elimination diet?
- Did you keep up with your food diary and monitor your symptoms? This is particularly important for people who are reacting to foods that are not in the top 8 triggers.
- Did you refuse cravings to eat off limit foods?
If you answered ‘Yes’ honestly to all of the above, don’t despair. As you are well aware, not everyone with eczema reacts to the same triggers. Perhaps over this diet you found some food sensitivities. Perhaps you didn’t. Perhaps you found some sensitivities and despite avoiding those foods your skin is still worse than ever.
All three scenarios are entirely possible.
Take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back. I know it’s frustrating, but you just completed some major detective work when it comes down to curing your own eczema. Whether you found triggers or not, you are one step closer -even if it doesn’t feel like it.
If your skin is still bad after this whole diet, wipe away those tears and stand up tall. It’s now time to tackle the next eczema monster:
An allergist will be able to help immensely with this monster, but in the meantime check out 120 Ingredients Known To Cause Contact Dermatitis and get to throwing out all those irritating soaps, shampoos, and lotions.
In summary, no matter what you choose to do, diet or not. I hope you find health and the end of the road. Just know I’ll be right beside you trying to find the answers too.
Health & Happiness,