Written by: Ellen M. Martin, Becca Malizia, BS, Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA
Since DNA and microbiome testing costs money and you have to wait for your results, here are three exercises that you can start right now!
Keep A Food Diary
- Written: write down everything you eat, and pay attention to your body’s reaction to it immediately and over the next 48 hours. Record any reaction: tingling mouth, upset stomach, gas, diarrhea, or cramps. Bingo–you are now on the road to mindful eating! You can dictate notes in your smartphone, or jot things down on an old-fashioned note pad. You can use either a simple all purpose journal, or one of the many specialty food and fitness diaries for sale today (amazon, thefooddiary).An online search for food diaries turns up many options, like the Cleveland Clinic’s sample, and the Dairy Council of California’s. The NIH and CDC even offer free templates for food diaries too! A spreadsheet is another simple way to organize entries by date, time, what you ate, how much you ate and how you felt. You can add columns for medications, exercise, blood sugar or blood pressure readings plus anything else you want to track, although it’s essential to make it easy to make entries wherever you are whenever you eat something.
- Using an App: There are many apps for the purpose of tracking your food (1). Digital tracking of food and calories (as well as activities like exercise, sleep and meditation) may make it easier to keep a diary consistently and to highlight patterns of good and bad reactions to individual foods. My Fitness Pal is famous, free and reputably easy to use. I have several friends who lost significant amounts of weight using MFP, although I found their calorie estimation sometimes difficult if I wasn’t eating brand name foods. There are more sophisticated apps, such as MyFoodDiary, a staff-curated food diary service that claims to avoid the errors of missing or duplicated data of its competitors. The Apple App Store is full of food tracking apps like MyNetDiary and of course, Google Android offers dozens of food planning and tracking apps too.
- Whether you write it down or use an app, the point of a food diary is to establish a baseline for future experiments, and maybe more importantly, make you aware of what you eat. Write down everything as soon as you eat it, including every beverage, that piece of hard candy from the reception desk or the bag of chips you couldn’t resist buying at the 7-11. Be specific and precise with regard to type of food and portion size. You can even look up estimated calories and note that, especially if your goals include gaining or losing weight! See eatingwell, livescience, and kaiserpermanente for additional tips.
- If you are already tracking other data, for example, medication timing, your blood sugar or blood pressure, a diary can make it easier to find correlations. Eat those salty chips or drink that high-potassium coconut water and then measure your blood pressure. A week or so of food diary records may already show you some habits and patterns that you’d like to change. Did you not realize you had an ice cream bar every night before bed? No breakfast and starving at lunch? Big dinner with wine and coffee and feel overloaded and can’t sleep after? Skin breaks out after eating tomatoes? All of this will help you begin to understand which dietary choices are right and wrong for you.
Try An Elimination Diet
This is the old-fashioned gold standard for diet and nutrition experiments, beloved by traditional nutritionists as well as functional medicine practitioners. As the name implies, an elimination diet focuses on what you don’t eat. In its purest form, you would fast altogether, except for water, for 24 hours and then reintroduce food items one day at a time, observing your reactions.Make sure you check in with your doctor before trying this. If this seems daunting and severe (although it is a great way to kick-start a weight-loss diet), eliminate your most suspect food (FODMAP or protein) without changing the rest of your diet and observe what happens.
Depending on your genetics (ethnicity can be used as a proxy until you get DNA test results), obvious targets for elimination include: fructose, gluten, nightshades, soy, dairy, nuts, eggs, chocolate, and known family or personal allergens, etc. (2). Do you feel better or worse? Do you crave the eliminated food? How’s your GI respond? Your skin? If the suspicious food is something you’ve been eating daily, skip it for a week or two and note what happens. It takes approximately two weeks for your microbiome to shift in response to changes to diet, so this process may take awhile. Here are some other suggestions from Dr. Axe and webmd.
After your elimination fast period, begin re-introducing suspect foods, one per day. Observe your reactions, both immediately (mouth tingling?) and 12-24 hours later (skin rash?). It’s easiest to observe GI reactions (tingly tongue, gas, constipation or diarrhea, etc.), but other sensitivity reactions may be detectable through elimination and reintroduction. Your food diary or app can be a big help here—use it to keep track of what you reintroduce and how you responded, and to prevent losing track of what you reintroduced and when.
Warnings about elimination diets generally include checking in with your physician in case you have a condition (e.g., diabetes) in which severely restricting calories may be a problem. Also, if you have a history of anaphylaxis, you need to strictly avoid known trigger foods. If you don’t know what food triggered the episode, best to only do reintroduction of individual foods under medical supervision and with an EpiPen handy. If you are already underweight, an elimination diet may cause further unwanted weight loss. Elimination diets may prevent you from getting enough micronutrients, so unless a particular supplement is on your suspicious list, keep up any supplementation you are already taking (3).
Give Intermittent Fasting (IF) A Go
Fasting is the hot new diet (or more accurately, eating pattern) fad. A quick Bing search on “Intermittent Fasting” brings up more than two million results! It’s not about what you eat, but when you eat. Our ancestors had to survive through periods of little or no food when crops failed or earlier, when hunting was scarce or seasonal foods not available,. It’s been argued that IF, like the paleo diet, is more like our ancestral evolutionary patterns of eating (4). Deliberate fasting is a time-honored religious practice whether weekly, annually or as part of monastic or shamanic practice.
Goals may include weight control, CNS reset, improved glucose tolerance and the reduction of risk factors for certain diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and dementia. IF increases Human Growth Hormone (HGH), lowers insulin levels and increases insulin sensitivity, kick-starts cellular repair, and may trigger positive changes in gene expression (4). Weight loss is by far the most popular reason to try IF, for the obvious reason that it significantly reduces total daily or weekly calorie intake, and for less-obvious reasons, including increased metabolism and the factors listed in the previous sentence.
It’s fairly easy to fast 12-16 hours a day by eating supper early (or skipping it altogether and making lunch your big meal) and fasting from afternoon to a late breakfast the following morning. The 16/8 method restricts eating to an 8-hour window; you could skip breakfast or dinner, depending on your sleep schedule. If you’re up for it and your schedule permits it, you can also try water fasting or severely limiting calories for 1-2 days a week. While the toxicity hypothesis is disputed, “cleanses” serve a similar purpose, to push your body into ketosis (a state of fat burning rather than sugar burning) for a period of time to reduce fat stores and give your insulin and immune systems a rest.
These are three simple, if not necessarily easy, experiments you can try at home and start today! They can work in concert with any DNA and microbiome results, further educating yourself and getting you closer to your unique, optimal diet.
- Learn more about your dietary tools, techniques and testing companies here
- Discover your uniqueness in our first Food Matters post here
- Read about pre- and probiotics, antibiotics and food here
- “The 21 Best Apps For Food Journaling.” Redbookmag. https://www.redbookmag.com/body/healthy-eating/advice/g614/lose-weight-apps-tools/?slide=8 . Accessed 30 July 2018.
- Walsh, Brian. “Food sensitivities and intolerances: How and why to do an elimination diet.” Precision Nutrition. https://www.precisionnutrition.com/elimination-diet . Accessed 30 July 2018.
- “What’s an Elimination Diet.” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/allergies/allergies-elimination-diet . Accessed 30 July 2018.
- “Intermittent Fasting 101- The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide.” healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/intermittent-fasting-guide#section1 . Accessed 30 July 2018.