Here’s a common scenario: you’re feeling crummy and have an inkling that something you’re eating could be to blame. Maybe your friend told you about how removing gluten from her diet cleared up her acne, or your mom’s neighbor swears that he cured his Crohn’s by discovering that soy was causing his flare-ups. In any case, you head to trusty Google and type in “elimination diet” — only to get completely overwhelmed by the flood of available options.
One program cuts out eggs while another leaves them in. Tomatoes are bad over here, but front and center over there. Because you don’t want to spend the next five years restricting yourself (and you shouldn’t!), it can be helpful to evaluate each diet on its own merit. Then, you can decide which one sounds best for you.
While there’s nuance in each of the diets listed below, there are some overarching rules that all elimination diets follow. They include:
- No processed foods
- No refined sugars and carbohydrates
- No fast foods
- No hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or trans fat oils
Now, let’s take a look at the differences between the most common elimination diets.
1. Basic elimination
The basic elimination diet cuts out gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and alcohol. Because these are the most common irritants to the digestive tract, they’re removed for a period of 14-60 days, then systematically added back in one at a time to gauge potential reactions.
It’s a good option if: You’re generally in good health but know that there’s room for improvement in how you’re feeling.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. Before your eyes glaze over, that’s simply a big-worded way of saying that FODMAPs are carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that the body has trouble absorbing. The result of that trouble could mean abdominal pain and bloating for you.
On the FODMAPs diet, you’re cutting out families of foods that correspond to each of the letters:
Fermentable Oligosaccharides (fructans and galacto-oligosaccharides):
- Vegetables, such as garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, shallots, and scallions
- Fruits like ripe bananas, dates, dried figs, grapefruit, watermelon, and plums
- Grains, including rye, wheat, and barley
- Pistachios and cashews
- Teas, such as oolong, chamomile, and chicory root
Disaccharides and Monosaccharides (naturally occuring sugars):
- Vegetables, including Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, and snap peas
- Dairy, including cow, sheep, and goat milk, commercially prepared cheeses, yogurt, ice cream, and custard
- Fruits, such as apples, cherries, mangoes, and pears
- Sweeteners like agave, high fructose corn syrup, and honey
- Rum alcohol
Polyols (sugar alcohols):
- Vegetables, including cauliflower, mushrooms, and peas
- Fruits, such as apricots, blueberries, cherries, and nectarines
- Sweeteners like sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, and xylitol
Following a low-FODMAP diet can feel a bit like whack-a-mole because there are so many random items you may not consider on a daily basis. Thankfully, there’s an app for that. Monash University created a searchable database of FODMAP foods, so you can easily check a food’s status on the go.
It’s also reassuring to know that it’s rare to react to every category on the FODMAP list. Typically, people identify which category is a no-go for them pretty quickly once they reintroduce foods.
Interestingly, many people find that removing FODMAPs from their diet for a period of time allows their digestive system a chance to reset, after which they can happily go back to eating all FODMAPs.
It’s also common for quantity to play a role when we’re talking about FODMAPs. For example, you may find that a few apple slices cause you no trouble, but a whole apple puts you into a world of hurt.
It’s a good option if: You’re struggling with IBS-type symptoms and can’t pinpoint why seemingly random foods make you bloated.
3. Autoimmune protocol (AIP)
AIP is a more targeted elimination diet aimed at people with autoimmune diseases. The goal of the diet is to reduce inflammation in the intestines and heal the intestinal permeability that’s a hallmark characteristic of autoimmune conditions.
The diet eliminates a much larger list of foods than the basic elimination diet, including:
- Nuts and nut oils
- Seeds, such as flax, pumpkin, sesame and herbs seeds like dill seed, fennel, cumin, and coriander
- Beans and legumes
- Grains, including corn, wheat, millet, buckwheat, rice, and oats
- Alternative sweeteners (even stevia)
- Dried fruits
- Dairy products
- Chocolate and cacao
- Gums, such as guar gum and gellan gum
- Nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, paprika, mustard seeds, and all chili spices)
- Vegetable oils, such as canola
- Culinary herbs from seeds (mustard, cumin, coriander, fennel, cardamom, fenugreek, caraway, nutmeg, dill seed)
While this list seems never-ending, advocates for the diet swear by the results. And because the diet is only meant to be followed for a short time (30-90 days), it’s manageable to plan for it. There are also countless online resources and cookbooks, so rest assured you won’t go hungry when eating AIP.
It’s a good option if: You have a diagnosed autoimmune disease, you want to heal your gut, or you’ve tried everything else and it hasn’t worked.
4. Specific carbohydrate diet (SCD):
The specific carbohydrate diet was also created to heal leaky gut. The diet works in stages, with the foods in stage 1 (the intro) being the most restrictive, but also the easiest to digest. Once symptoms have waned, you move onto the subsequent stages.
The diet eliminates complex carbohydrates, lactose, sucrose and processed foods, including:
- Cereal grains, such as wheat, barley, corn, oats, rice, and spelt
- Processed meats, such as ham, lunch meat, and hot dogs
- Canned or processed vegetables and fruits
- Legumes, including soy beans, chickpeas, and bean sprouts
- Dairy, such as commercial yogurt, milks, and cheeses
- Starchy carbs like potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, and parsnips
- Curry powders, and spices with anti-caking agents
It’s a good option if: You’re struggling with a bowel disease, such as Crohn’s, celiac, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, or chronic diarrhea.
5. Gut and psychology syndrome (GAPS)
The GAPS diet has evolutionary roots in the specific carbohydrate diet above with a few notable differences. Rather than simply eliminating foods, GAPS focuses on adding in nourishing, gut-healing foods, such as bone broth and egg yolks.
Typically, GAPS is done for a long period of time, with the introduction stage lasting between four to six weeks, and the full diet for up to two years. The full GAPS diet mostly resembles a stricter Paleo, so there are plenty of delicious options and people generally don’t feel too restricted past the intro phase of the diet.
Just like SCD, the diet eliminates all grains, commercial dairy, starchy vegetables, and refined carbohydrates while focusing on nutrient-dense foods that are easily digested. Unlike others on this list, GAPS does allow for homemade dairy yogurt and egg to be added in early on the plan, so if you have a hunch those are an issue, it might not be best for you.
It’s a good option if: You want to heal your gut, or you’re struggling with a psychological condition, such as autism or ADHD.
All of these diets are not meant to be followed forever. In fact, most of them require short-term adherence, after which you enter a period of reintroduction.
During reintroduction, you’ll add an eliminated food back into your diet and watch for a reaction. Reactions look like any number of symptoms from digestive distress to a breakout to brain fog. If you experience a reaction, you’ll know without a shadow of a doubt that a certain food is problematic, so you’ll be able to remove it from your diet for good.
Choosing the right diet for you
If you’re still having trouble pinpointing which of these diets may be a good starting point, know that you’re not alone. I recommend contacting a functional nutritionist who will help you wade through the options. He or she can do a thorough evaluation of your symptoms, pair you up with the right diet, or custom design one for your unique body, and give you helpful resources to get started.