Elimination diets: What they are and who they're for

Find out what foods could be triggering unwanted symptoms in your body by removing them from your diet.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
4 min read

An elimination diet can be helpful for identifying potentially problematic foods.

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If you've ever done the Whole30 diet or the Clean Program, then guess what -- you've done an elimination diet. Elimination diets have been repopularized in recent years, but they've been around for a long time. Even though they're rebranded again and again in various programs (including Whole 30), there's a reason why people use them to help them feel better and why doctors turn to them again and again. They are considered the gold standard for identifying food intolerances and related health symptoms that can stem from consuming foods that are not well tolerated over periods of time.

Even though the word "diet" is involved, elimination diets aren't intended for weight loss -- though you might end up losing a few pounds. Elimination diets involve removing foods from your diet that are commonly linked to food allergies or other inflammation-related health conditions such as autoimmune diseases, migraines or fatigue. 

They were created by a doctor in 1926 in an effort to help identify food allergies in patients. To this day, they are considered the gold standard of identifying food allergies, food intolerance or sensitivities, and helping resolve other food-related health issues in the functional medicine world and beyond.

If you're curious about how elimination diets work and what they are used for, keep reading for more information.


An elimination diet involves taking out foods that could be a problem for your health -- like processed foods and refined sugars.

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What is an elimination diet?

There is no one way to do an elimination diet, although there are standard guidelines that many practitioners will recommend that you follow. It's important to keep in mind that there are different types of elimination diets, like the autoimmune paleo protocol, which is specialized for people with autoimmune conditions. If you do an elimination diet based on a doctor or nutritionist's advice, they can help customize your diet based on your symptoms. 

These are common food groups elimination diets cut out:

  • Soy: soy beans, soy sauce, edamame, tempeh, tofu, soy lecithin 
  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream
  • Gluten: all wheat-containing breads, pastries, pasta
  • Eggs
  • Nightshades: peppers like bell pepper, eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes
  • Corn and corn-derived products like grits or cornmeal, corn syrup
  • Peanuts 
  • Refined sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup)
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine

These particular foods are avoided because they are either a common food allergen, you can have an intolerance to them, or you can become sensitive to them, which can cause symptoms like migraines, bloating or nausea.

This list of foods may seem long and intimidating, but you're not supposed to get rid of them forever. The idea is to remove all of the foods for a short period of time, and then slowly reintroduce them one at time to identify potential triggers for adverse symptoms. 

You can think of an elimination diet as a food investigation in which you're the detective, trying to pinpoint any foods that could be giving you problems. While removing certain foods is sometimes not the only thing that will help you feel better, knowing which foods cause unwanted symptoms is really useful for doctors or other practitioners to help you with your health condition.

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How does an elimination diet work?

When you start an elimination diet you'll remove all of the potentially problematic foods entirely from your diet for a few weeks or about a month. If you're looking at the food list and it feels super daunting, you can talk to a nutritionist or health coach who can help you come up with meal ideas. This phase is often called the elimination phase. 

The second phase of most elimination diets is called the reintroduction phase. This is when you slowly reintroduce the eliminated foods back into your diet, one at a time. This requires some patience if you're trying to pinpoint an allergy. If you reintroduce multiple food groups at once and experience a reaction, you won't know what the exact culprit is. But if you experience an adverse reaction to a specific food, you can identify an intolerance or sensitivity.

Once you're able to pinpoint foods that may not work for you, or just generally make you feel worse, you can then come up with a food plan that makes you feel your best. Or if you're working with a doctor or nutritionist on a specific health condition, you can work together to come up with an eating plan that works for your specific condition. 


A doctor can test you for food allergies or you can do a test at home.

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Elimination diets and food sensitivity testing

A lot of people do elimination diets or programs like the Whole30 to identify possible food sensitivities. Food sensitivities are different from allergies in that the side effects from a sensitivity are not as severe or life-threatening, but can still make you feel sick.

There are a variety of food sensitivity tests out there -- you can get them from your doctor or through at-home test companies like EverlyWell. The evidence on how effective and accurate these tests are is really mixed, but you may be wondering why someone would put themselves through a highly restrictive diet for a month instead of doing a simple test. 

There are several reasons, among them that testing is expensive, but also some practitioners say they can't rely on the results as much as if someone tests removing foods on their own. It's one thing to read a test result, and another to experience something first-hand. And a list of foods can't tell you which symptoms they may trigger -- you can only figure that out with an elimination diet and reintroduction phase.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.