[Editor’s note: Julie Cerrone is a Certified Holistic Health Coach based in Pittsburgh who is living with psoriatic disease. The following is the beginning of a two-part series about her experiences with elimination diets. As the author writes on her blog, “You should never substitute information from this blog for information obtained from your presiding licensed medical professional.”]
Diets. There are SO many of them out there, it’s hard to know which one is the best. Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, pescetarian, low carb, high carb–there are even crazy ones like the cotton ball and orange juice diet and the ice cream diet. They all have merits, and they’ve all worked for SOMEONE, but how do you know which is right for you?
The goal of a diet should be to pick foods that will help support your body’s processes so that they can work optimally. If your body is supported to work as it should, you’ll start to experience some awesome side effects–more energy, balanced hormones, less inflammation, decreased pain and weight loss! Food truly can be a medicine to your body. Think about it: Every single cell in your body needs fuel to keep on working. By choosing high-quality, anti-inflammatory foods you can help your body achieve that goal.
Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of your immune system lives in your gut. Therefore, if you eat certain foods that invoke an immune response, your body will constantly be in high-alert mode. When you have psoriatic disease, the LAST thing you want to do is add more inflammation to your body. Your immune system is already overworked, so why not give it a break and avoid certain foods that will set it off?
How do I give my immune system a break?
How? By completing an elimination diet. An elimination diet will take top trigger foods out of your daily meal routine. Abstaining from these foods for a 6-8 week period will allow your body time to detox and to start to heal.
After this time, you will reintroduce the foods one by one. Putting on your detective’s hat, you’ll then explore how these foods interact with your body. Maybe they cause bloating, perhaps a headache or acne. Maybe you’ll notice swelling, stiffness, a psoriasis breakout or pain in your joints. During this phase you will identify your specific trigger foods.
At the end of the experiment, you’ll know which foods you should avoid and which foods are safe to eat. You’ll never ever have to fad- or crash-diet again because you’ll have your very own, you-specific diet plan. (If you’d like more information and resources on completing an elimination diet, I invite you to check out my blog!)
The worst of the worst
Each person reacts to foods differently, but there are a few food groups that are big inflammatory offenders. I get asked so many times, “What should I eat? What should I avoid?” The answer truly lies in the execution of an elimination diet, but there are five top offenders that I believe any autoimmune patient should try to avoid: gluten/grains, dairy, sugar, soy and corn.
Today, I’d like to explore gluten/grains and dairy.
A grain’s makeup includes proteins that are meant to protect it. They’re naturally occurring in these plants so that if a predator were to eat them, they’d have a chance of surviving. Our digestive systems are not equipped to break down all of these proteins.
There are many different proteins that protect a grain, one of which is gluten. There are people who have allergic responses to gluten (this is called celiac disease), but there are many people who also have immune responses to gluten because it’s so difficult to digest. These proteins cause damage to our intestinal lining and invoke an immune response (remember, the majority of our immune system lives in our gut!). In psoriatic disease, our immune system is already working overtime. By omitting foods that stimulate an already overstimulated immune system, we can aid in the dissipation of our inflammation.
Gluten is a great place to start when you begin an elimination diet. Many are hesitant because they’ve been tested by their doctors for an allergy or sensitivity to gluten and have been assured that they’re OK. But there are so many research studies showing that if you take out foods that interact with your immune system, you can have the upper hand at helping to manage your symptoms. Instead of eating wheat bread or pasta for dinner, try some brown rice flour wraps, rice or quinoa!
I’ve also listed grains in this category because, as I mentioned previously, there are many different proteins that help protect the grain. Sometimes omitting gluten doesn’t fix all of your problems. If you remove gluten and after six months you are still having fatigue issues, skin breakouts, joint pain and inflammation, and other symptoms, I’d suggest taking it one step further and cut out ALL grains.
Try these tips and tricks!
- Instead of using flour and bread crumbs to bread chicken, use almond flour and spices!
- If you’re feeling like pasta, opt for a rice flour noodle instead. Or, better yet, spiralize a zucchini or sweet potato, sauté for a few minutes and use as “zoodles.”
- Plan your meals around veggies and meat instead of focusing on a grain or starch.
- Add more veggies to your meal by making cauli-rice instead of using regular rice. Check out this delicious fried cauli-rice recipe!
Dairy’s inflammatory reaction is multifaceted. People can react negatively to the sugars and proteins in dairy, such as lactose and casein. Dairy is often full of hormones and antibiotics that cause immune reactions, even in people who can tolerate lactose and casein. And, because dairy is a very acid-forming food, it can throw off our body’s pH balance. We do need some acidic foods in our diet, but having too much can cause our bones to weaken and can cause fractures, breaks and even osteoporosis! We’ve been told milk is a good source of calcium and can protect our bones, but the opposite may be occurring in your body.
Worried about getting your calcium? Try almonds, kale, oranges, collard greens, broccoli, figs, spinach, coconut milk or sesame seeds.
Just like gluten, the proteins in dairy will cause inflammation in our guts–especially in autoimmune patients. Did you know that inflammation in our guts can cause mood changes, stuffy noses, sore throats, joint pain, skin outbreaks, headaches, fatigue, acne, swollen joints, aching muscles–I could go on and on. Getting rid of these foods can only produce wonderful results (and even an awesome weight-loss side effect–you’ll never see that on the side of a prescription bottle!). Instead of reaching for a glass of milk or using a dairy creamer, try a non-dairy option. They are delicious and can actually enhance recipes that normally would have used a dairy option.
I used to be a milkaholic. I always said there was absolutely NO way that I’d give up milk. Once I did an elimination diet, I identified the horrible reaction my body was having to milk. A reaction that I’d grown to know as “normal” and didn’t even realize was occurring in my body. We all have different trigger foods and dairy is DEFINITELY a big one for me. I’ve seen it time and time again with my clients. Many of them are reluctant to give up cheese, but once they feel the difference, it’s much harder for them to slap that slice on their sandwich.
Try these tips and tricks!
- If a recipe calls for milk or cream, try substituting coconut milk from a can.
- Next time you’re at the store, pick up cashew milk or almond milk ice cream. I’ve actually found them to be tastier than their dairy counterparts!
- Want a pumpkin spiced latte from your coffee shop? Ask them to substitute a non-dairy milk option.
- Instead of using butter, try ghee/clarified butter or coconut oil.
But don’t I need these foods?
I’ve worked with many people who had concerns about cutting out food groups from their diets. There are many people who believe that cutting out gluten (or grains), when you don’t have celiac disease, is detrimental to your health. But guess what? You are not receiving any nutrients from these foods that can’t be substituted by another food. In fact, by cutting these foods you’re making way for healthier, more nutrient-dense foods to fill up your plate.
It’s always easier to focus on ADDING things to your diet rather than CUTTING them. So try not to focus on avoiding gluten or dairy, but on swapping these items for more vegetables. Spaghetti and meatballs can be made healthier when you use zoodles. Pizza can become a healing meal when you make the crust from almond flour, omit the cheese and pile on the roasted veggies!
The best thing about eliminating these foods from your diet is that it gives your gut a chance to heal and settle down. As your digestive system settles, your immune system will be less engaged and your whole body will start to relax. With autoimmunity–especially psoriatic disease–this is a must!
Is a diet a cure-all for patients with diseases of the immune system?
No, unfortunately. There is no cure-all. BUT it can be a huge tool in your toolbox for helping to get your inflammation and symptoms under control. And who can argue with wanting to do that?
There’s so much to inflammation, but a starting point is definitely identifying your trigger foods and removing them from your diet. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about sugar, soy and corn. Stay tuned to hear more!
Wishing you a pain-free day!
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