In the age of Instagrammers advertising juice cleanses and hearing about one of your cousin’s Whole30 excursion during Thanksgiving dinner, “food cleanses” can seem to just be the latest in fad diets. But, while many do it for weight loss, some need to because of food sensitivities, myself included. Living with a food sensitivity that you haven’t figured out can be, to put it lightly, pretty miserable. Some discover food sensitivities they never knew they had after doing a food cleanse, while I embarked on mine to finally figure out exactly what had been bothering me for years.
Why I did it
For as long as I can remember, having a horrible stomach has pretty much been a part of my everyday life. It’s something that has controlled me, because I knew that any day could always take a turn for the worst because of my stomach.
But, my episodes of sickness (which include my stomach feeling like it was literally being tied into knots), seemed so sporadic that I literally felt hopeless in ever knowing exactly what made my stomach upset. It felt daunting to eliminate whole food groups to my diet when it could be a single food.
After about a million doctor appointments confirming that I didn’t have some kind of virus, my doctor told me some earth-shattering news: that I needed to go on a food cleanse in order to really figure out what sensitivities I have.
What is a food cleanse?
In order to really figure out what’s making you sick, my doctor explained that I needed to give up food groups for at least four weeks, which ensures that everything that you’re eating has enough time to completely get out of your system. Then, you gradually add food groups back into your diet week by week to see how each one makes you feel. When you begin eating it again, it’s like your body is seeing it for the first time, which really allows you to figure out sensitivities and allergies.
My doctor had me do it for two food groups: gluten and dairy. For me personally, these were the most likely culprits for my problems, and rather than giving up everything Whole30 style, I choose to focus on just these for the time being. I chose to do it for four weeks, since that seemed the most feasible for me and what I’m used to eating.
Full disclosure: the meals I eat are almost always pretty healthy and home-cooked, but I’ve always been a big snacker, which could consist of anything and everything, especially after a long day where I get home and am starving.
At first, cutting dairy from my diet wasn’t nearly as hard as I imagined (besides cheese, of course). Besides loving half and half in my morning iced coffee, I pretty much only drink almond milk, and stay away from ice cream because I’ve always felt it was a top contender for the things that upset my stomach. Out of everything, I’ve always had a hunch the main source of my problems was a lactose intolerance. So the fact that cutting dairy out wasn’t too difficult made me super optimistic.
Gluten, on the other hand, was a totally different story. I always thought giving up gluten just meant buying a special bread, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It felt like gluten was in literally everything. Crackers, cookies, noodles — every carb that I craved (and unfortunately, if I’m not eating carbs, I basically lose the will to eat).
During the first week, I didn’t know what carbs to eat, so I wasn’t eating carbs at all, which in turn made me feel exhausted and horrible all the time. I definitely felt less bloated and a little better in terms of my stomach as a whole, but it didn’t make up for the fact that I was cutting myself off from everything I wanted to eat, and felt tired as a consequence.
At the beginning of week 2, I smartened up and went to the gluten-free aisle of the closest Mariano’s and stocked up on everything I could find, from almond flour to gluten free muffins.
Through this, I found that although I had always assumed gluten-free alternatives tasted as good as the real thing, that was not the case. A lot of things tasted like cardboard, which once again, made me not want to eat it at all. (Shoutout to everyone that has to be completely gluten-free — I don’t know how you do it)!
While I finally discovered the carbs that still tasted good and that I was allowed to eat, being gluten-free began to change the way that I snacked. Instead of picking up my usual carb-loaded post-work snack, it made me get creative with what I was eating. I started eating healthier things, and incorporated more nuts, fruit, and veggies into my diet.
At the end of the day, I kept realizing that I just felt better. My stomach wasn’t getting upset nearly as often, so I was feeling hopeful that I was finally going to crack the case. I was only eating three meals and one healthy snack a day, and I was eating higher quality foods so I was staying full for longer. It also helped me be conscious of the small things that I usually snacked on without thinking twice.
After the initial purge from gluten and dairy during weeks 1 and 2, I wasn’t craving the things I usually eat as much, and things were much, much easier. It just felt like a part of my daily diet, and I was starting to like eating foods I normally wouldn’t.
During week 3, I was able to notice that my stomach wasn’t getting upset, except for after I was eating salads (which I didn’t expect at all). I was able to break it down and figure out what was causing it: tomatoes. Every time I ate them, my stomach would be in a ton of pain and I would break out in hives. This was one of the small allergies I had feared, but without eating cleaner, I don’t think I ever would have discovered it, because I would have figured it was something bigger.
Everything accounted for, I was overall feeling good. More than anything, I was being more creative with meals (hello, zucchini noodles), and finding new things that I really loved eating that were still good for me.
I also began to find gluten-free alternatives that I actually didn’t mind, which made the experience 100x more tolerable.
Adding food back in
Week 4 went about as smoothly as week 3 in terms of how challenging eating was. I was happy to have figured out one allergy that was causing my problems, and was curious to see what was going to happen the next week when I added each food group back in (You have to add food groups back in separately. For me, I was adding them back in a week apart).
I added dairy back into my diet the next week, and had no problems at all, which I didn’t see coming. Gluten had never been on my radar for what was causing issues for me, but since I was getting sick so frequently, it did add up. I was curious (and a little scared) for the next week.
After adding gluten back into my diet, my stomach began getting super upset again. I was bloated, uncomfortable, and feeling sick every day. After a little more time, I discovered that I can handle it in small doses, but when I ate it in excess, I had problems. So, I unfortunately can’t sit and devour a whole bread basket at restaurants anymore.
While it wasn’t exactly the news I was hoping for, figuring out what upsets my stomach has made my day-to-day life infinitely better. For me, this plan worked to figure out what was making me sick, and I was lucky I only needed to eliminate gluten and dairy to do it, because a lot of people need to eliminate more. Not needing to fear that I’m going to be stuck in bed because my stomach hurts so bad is well worth giving up the things that make me feel sick. I only wish I bit the bullet and committed to figuring it out earlier.
Tips for doing a food cleanse
Before you start, make sure to stock up on foods that you know you like that fit your rules.
Choose a time in your life that allows for a stricter diet. For example, don’t start one right before a vacation.
Come off your cleanse slowly. For me, I added each food group back in super gradually to make sure I didn’t get super sick. If you gave up dairy, don’t celebrate your cleanse being done by drinking four milkshakes.
Drink a lot of water.
Remember why you’re doing it, and remember that you’ll be back to eating the things you like in no time.