As I mentioned in my vegan cheesecake recipe post, I recently participated in a 30-day elimination diet cleanse challenge. I had to cut out dairy, coffee, sugar, tofu, gluten, starch vegetables and most fruits aside from berries and green apples (what do you mean no bananas? How am I supposed to make smoothies now?!) While this list of restrictions sounds a bit dreadful (and you’re probably thinking I’m a sort of closet-masochist) I was committed to completing the challenge as I felt my body needed a detox.
(soundtrack comes to a shrieking halt)
Okay, so I know that there are skeptics out there who are against detox programs. I feel that the fast weight-loss programs that disguise themselves as detox programs has given the latter a bad rep. With that being said, I ask that you keep an open mind and let me explain to you why a detox can be beneficial for your health.
What is a detox?
In the words of Dr. Elson M. Haas, “detoxification is the process of clearing toxins from the body, neutralizing or transforming them, as well as clearing excess mucus and congestion.” To the skeptics who argue that our body can detoxify itself, I do agree with you. Indeed, we have an incredible body that is equipped with hard-working organs that are fully capable of doing the above-mentioned task (and this is your cue to high five your under-appreciated liver, kidney, GI tract, skin and lymphatic system!).
However, we should be conscious that a) the body can only handle a certain level of toxins and b) to effectively cleanses itself, the body needs to be in top shape. The problems occur when the level of toxins become excessive and/or when we don’t treat our organs so well (hello binge eating Oreos!).
Take a moment to think about the number of chemicals and toxins we expose ourselves to each day. From food additives to pesticides to the cleaning products we use in our homes, toxins are everywhere. And just to keep those thinking wheels rolling, from an evolutionary standpoint, our genetic makeup isn’t adapted to handle many of the chemicals that have been introduced on the market in the last 100 years.
Considering that our DNA is the same as our ancestors that lived thousands years ago, we probably don’t even have the necessary enzymes to neutralize and eliminate many of these new toxins. While this theory is depressing enough to make us want to crawl under rock and stay there, there is no need for such despair. Instead, I believe we can focus on incorporating healthy practices of regular detoxes to naturally support our elimination process.
Who needs a detox program?
In his book Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Dr. Haas suggests that who needs to detoxify is based in part on individual lifestyle and needs. If you have symptoms of diseases of toxicity and congestion, you will likely benefit more from detoxification practices. Common toxicity symptoms include headache, fatigue (or “brain fog”), constipation, mucus problems, aches and pains, digestive issues and allergy symptoms. If you have any chronic illnesses, you should speak with your treating physician first to decide together if a detox program is right for you.
Why start a detox program?
A detox can be useful to clear your symptoms and prevent future problems. I love the idea of thinking of a detox as offering your body a break to reset itself. While I plan to practice regular detox periods for the physical benefits, several people do it for spiritual and religious reasons.
When to start a detox program?
While there no official guidelines out there, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayuverdic principles state that a detox program should be taken on between changing of the seasons to help the body better adapt to the new environmental conditions.
Which detox program to choose?
There are several programs out there that are tailored to different needs. Shorter programs like juice cleanses are meant to reset your digestive system and pull out the toxins. Longer programs like elimination diets allow you to identify foods that your body doesn’t tolerate well and to decrease the workload for your digestive system. By removing certain foods that may cause allergic reaction or digestive issues for a period of time, you are able to evaluate how your body feels without them. Then one by one, you reintroduce these items back into your diet to determine which foods are well tolerated and those that cause a decline in well-being.
I have already tried both the juice cleans and the elimination diet. As I believe the elimination diet is the most sustainable approach to detoxing, I’ll only write about my experience with this method and the observations that came out of it.
My experience with an elimination diet
Most of the drama was in my head
As I’ve mentioned in my introduction, I wasn’t allowed any bananas during the challenge as its sugar content (or more accurately the glycemic index) is considered too high. I was scandalized, annoyed, upset and was wondering with despair how the heck was I going to make a creamy smoothie without bananas. I was picturing myself drinking watery and bland concoctions and gagging each morning. The next 30 days seemed pretty bleak. Eventually I got over my drama, become proactive and searched for alternatives.
I ended up trying avocadoes (love), cauliflower (a bit strange), soaked cashews (decadent) and zucchini (that was just weird). Because of their lower glycemic index, I felt fuller longer and didn’t get run over by the hangry (hungry + angry) monsters as quickly as I do when I make my smoothies with bananas. Had I not taken this challenge, I would have stubborn stuck with my banana based smoothies and continue to experience peaks and crashes of my blood sugar level. Now, when I do add a banana to my smoothie, I only put half.
“Taking breaks from things is a good way to assess our true relationship to them and often a way to improve our health.” – Dr. Elson M. Haas
Another food item to give up that caused some mental resistance was coffee. I had actually quit two months prior to my challenge for practical reasons. I was traveling one month in Asia and because coffee makes me pee like crazy, I didn’t want to spend my time searching for a squatting hole. Therefore I made the decision to cut it out cold turkey.
While I only took one small black coffee in the morning, it was still a habit that was hard to quit. My overactive imagination pictured me with bleary eyes, bumping into walls and unable to form a proper sentence without that cup of joe. To my relief, after 2-3 days of caffeine-free living, I continued to remain alert and no longer experienced my afternoon fatigue (due to a caffeine crash) nor required a nap after work.
It goes to show you that when dealing with change, ¾ of the battle is mental (or when you’re dramatic like me, it’s more like 9/10th).
I don’t do well with drastic measures
Eliminating all these food items from my diet at once was too drastic of a measure for me. Fortunately, I was doing the challenge with my sister and a friend. They kept me accountable and on track. (Cheating on the diet also meant having to do 100 burpees: something I would rather avoid.)
Yes, challenges are meant to be, well, challenging. However, if you’re in it for the long run, I feel it’s better to implement small changes at the time, instead of 7 all in one shot. If you’re interested in doing an elimination diet and feel like you would fall off the bandwagon if you had to create such a big change, I suggest eliminating one food item per week as you’ll encounter less mental resistance and will have a better chance at adapting. It will take longer until you reach the point where you eliminated all common allergens, however with a more sustainable plan, you also increase your chances of success.
If you’re not sure which food allergen to eliminate first, I made a daily food dairy sheet that you can use to track how you feel after each meal. Write down your meal in the appropriate slots and record how you feel through out the day. Don’t look to make any connections just yet. After 7 days, look back at your diary and identify moments when you felt heavy, bloated, tired or simply not at your best. Most likely, it will be the meal that you ate before this moment that is the culprit. (Ex. If you feel heavy in the afternoon, your lunch is likely the reason for this). Once you have identified which foods or ingredients bring you down, avoid these foods for 2 to 4 weeks. Download your free food diary sheet here!
A healthy diet isn’t about exclusion
While some people feel so rejuvenated after an elimination diet that they decide to make it their daily diet, I needed my bananas (again with the bananas), maple syrup, tofu, and an abundance of fruits in my life. But I am more mindful of the portions I eat and how it makes my body feel. With the elimination diet, I’ve also come to realize that a healthy diet isn’t about restrictions (focusing on what I’m not allowed to eat makes me a bit depressed), but about including a variety of fresh foods, eating them in moderation, listening to how your body responds to them and adjusting yourself along the way.
Would I do it again?
I think that once you do an elimination diet and have identified which items you should avoid or limit, you don’t have to go through the whole ordeal again (Lord knows that I won’t anyways). However, I will do “mini” 15 to 30 days elimination diets of the foods I know I tolerate less well, such as tofu (acne) and sugar (hangry monsters), every season.
To learn more
If you want to learn more about detox programs and why certain foods should be avoided, I recommend picking up the Joyous Detox book by Joy McCarthy. I haven’t gone through the entire book yet, but what I personally love about this one is that the author includes meal plans. While change is ¾ mental, it is also ¼ good planning. With the meal plans, you’ll know exactly what to eat each day and will be much more likely to succeed.
Also, don’t forget to download your free food diary sheet here if you want to identify which foods in your diet aren’t contributing to your well-being!
With much love and hugs,
If you want to learn how to get your vitamins from plant-based foods, click on the image to download your FREE Vitamin Guide!
Featured picture by https://unsplash.com/@bunnyranso and
Picture in text by https://unsplash.com/@dorner