Everything in Moderation?: How an Elimination Diet Could Change Your Life
When it comes to food and nutrition, the conventional mantra is “everything in moderation.” A cupcake is OK, as long as you’re not having one every day. The occasional trip to McDonald’s isn’t going to do much damage; it’s only “Super Size Me” quantities that will cause you problems. As great a message as “moderation” is for many things — exercise, for instance — there are certain things in life in which moderation is not key. What I am talking about here are foods to which the body is intolerant: when your body can’t handle a certain type of food, the key isn’t moderation — the key is elimination.
While this may seem like a matter of course (why would you eat a food that your body doesn’t tolerate?) in real life, practical situations, it can seem a lot more complex. Perhaps the most prevalent example of this at the moment is gluten. By now most people have at least heard of this “gluten-free fad” that’s becoming more and more popular in Western society. Gluten-free options are available at many restaurants, and gluten-free sections have been added to most supermarket bakeries. Aware as they may be of this phenomenon, however, most people are still unaware of how prevalent an issue gluten is for our society. Even if they recognize that it is necessary for those with Celiac Disease to avoid gluten, they do not know that CD is only one of the many forms of gluten intolerance out there.
For the many people in the world with gluten intolerance, moderation is most certainly not the key. As most people who are gluten intolerant will tell you, even a small bit of gluten (some flour added to gravy, for example), can cause a huge variety of issues including stomach pain, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, mood irregularities, skin rashes, and even sore joints. Moderation in this means feeling sick only sometimes instead of all of the time. Why would someone choose this if they had the option to feel good all the time?
Some people may argue that I’m not giving the whole story here. They may point out that many people don’t have any symptoms of gluten intolerance until after they eliminate it for a while. While they continue to eat gluten in moderation, they are completely fine. Someone put this argument to me just this morning, in fact. I was talking with a woman (let’s call her Amy) whose partner has recently eliminated gluten to relieve the symptoms of his Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He has been having enormous success with it: his symptoms have markedly improved. Amy remarked, however, that she has been reluctant to similarly eliminate wheat because a friend of hers who went gluten-free solely to support a spouse discovered (when she tried to reintroduce gluten) that she was now intolerant to it as well. Amy stated that she didn’t want to eliminate gluten in case it caused her to become gluten intolerant.
The problem with this argument is that elimination diets don’t actually work that way. You do not become intolerant to a food by eliminating it. When you eat a food that your body doesn’t tolerate, your body tries to protect itself by producing antibodies. Sometimes those antibodies don’t work well enough and you get symptoms of intolerance, and sometimes they work too well and start attacking other things too (as in the case of some – or all – autoimmune diseases), but either way, your body is reacting. When you then eliminate that food for a while, your body lets go of some of its natural defences against the damage that food is causing to you, and, therefore, when you reintroduce it, your reaction to the food is much more violent than it was before. This does not mean you have developed an intolerance: it means you have identified one. If Amy truly can tolerate gluten, going gluten-free will not affect her ability to digest it “in moderation.” For someone who is intolerant, however, continuing to consume gluten — even in moderation — will continue to cause problems, whether immediately or over the long term. In these cases, the best course of action to avoid short-term discomfort and long-term health issues is to eliminate it entirely.
While gluten may be a prominent example given the recent popularity of “going gluten-free” and the wealth of new information coming to light about the prevalence of gluten intolerance in our society, this by no means only applies to gluten. There are some foods that are more likely to cause intolerances (see my post on the Paleo Template for more information), any food is capable of causing a reaction. I, for instance, have discovered that I do not tolerate eggs or nuts: both send me running quickly to the washroom :S That reaction is a clear sign that there is something in those foods which is causing damage to my body, and I see no reason to subject myself to that for the sake of “everything in moderation.”
By eliminating that one key thing (or many), you may find relief from any number of symptoms that you may have brushed past (like mood swings, PMS, digestive issues, etc.). At the end of the day, what you choose to eat is up to you, but please do be aware that “everything in moderation” could be causing you some serious issues.