A Registered Dietitian on How to Do Elimination Diets Right
Adopting a restrictive diet may sound virtuous, but if you’re a vegetarian binging on pasta and cheese or a Paleo devotee eating a pound of beef every night, you’re not doing your body any favors.
“Just eliminating a food group in an effort for weight management, I think, is somewhat misguided,” says registered dietitian Kate Scarlata, who specializes in digestive wellness. “Any time you go on an elimination diet or make a drastic change in your diet, you might lose some weight [at first] but eventually you will gain the weight back.”
Even though restrictive diets may not be necessary for everyone, many people are dead-set on dropping foods from their menus—or have a medical or ethical reason for doing so. That’s why we asked Scarlata if there is any way to actually do an elimination diet the right way—and fortunately, there is. Here’s how:
Add: Logically, protein takes the biggest hit in most vegetarian diets, so Scarlata says followers must be diligent about finding plant-based sources like legumes and tofu—and eating enough of them. “Because legumes are high in fiber they fill you up quicker, so it’s just being more aware that you’re really getting the protein,” she says, adding that vitamin B12 is only found in animal sources, so vegetarians should take a supplement. Lastly, Scarlata recommends pairing iron-rich plant sources, like dried beans and leafy greens, with vitamin C-rich foods to increase absorption.
Avoid: Scarlata says many vegetarians fall back on cheese as an easy substitute for meat. “There’s a lot of fat in cheese, so that may or may not be a problem for them depending on what else is in their diet,” she says.
Add: Along with Scarlata’s tips for vegetarians, vegans need to be careful about getting enough vitamins typically found in dairy, like calcium, riboflavin, and vitamin D. “When it comes to plant sources of calcium, it gets a little tricky because there’s a lot of misinformation,” Scarlata says. “An example would be spinach. Spinach does have a lot of calcium, but it also has oxalates, and they bind to the calcium, rendering it inactive to the body.” Instead, she advises to reach for kale, broccoli, or chia seeds. Look to leafy vegetables and nuts to get riboflavin, and some mushrooms for vitamin D.
Avoid: There’s no need to totally cut out non-dairy milks, but Scarlata cautions that many of them are highly processed and do not contain protein, as cow’s milk does. In other words, don’t rely heavily on non-dairy milks for needed nutrition.
Add: Naturally gluten-free whole grains, such as buckwheat and amaranth, are nutritional powerhouses, so Scarlata says to turn to those grains rather than manufactured gluten-free products. “[When people eat whole grains], they would be getting some of the fiber, and some of the nutrition, and some of the micronutrients,” she says.
Avoid: Scarlata warns that gluten-free replacements for foods like pasta, snacks, and breads are highly processed and loaded with calories. “People think that chocolate chip cookies that are gluten-free are suddenly healthier,” Scarlata says. “Instead, they’re just swapping out whole wheat for brown rice, which doesn’t have a lot of fiber and a lot of the nutrition.”
Add: Paleo followers should adhere to the same guidelines as vegans when it comes to replacing calcium, vitamin D, and riboflavin.
Avoid: Scarlata says the biggest problem with the Paleo diet is portion size. “Suddenly people feel like, because they’ve given up all this other stuff, that the stuff that they do include is okay, so they might have these huge portions” of foods like red meat, nuts, and coconut oil, she explains. “I look at fats as really important, and nuts and seeds as really important, but they’re accents. Not, ‘I had a plate of almonds.'”