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Unlike the dietary changes that celiac, gluten-intolerant, or allergic people are suggested to follow, the elimination stage of the FODMAP diet is not intended to be a long-term, forever thing.
While it’s an essential part of the process, the elimination phase should only last for four to eight weeks. Following that, foods need to be reintroduced by category, to determine which ones are trigger foods...
...AND to know which ones aren't so you can eat them again! This is typically known as the “challenge phase.”
Even though the elimination phase of the FODMAP diet is a pretty intense life and behavior change for most people, the trade off of having a reduction in symptoms is the motivation most of us need to continue.
In fact, recent studies show that up to 86% of people with IBS experience some improvement in symptoms during this step.
I know how safe it feels to stay in super-restrictive mode because you’re feeling better, but despite all the benefits and improvements, it’s not in your best interest to stay in the elimination phase long-term.
There are three key reasons why you should complete BOTH phases of the FODMAP diet and bring the foods that don’t trigger your symptoms back into your life:
Reason #1: Because variety in your diet is a good thing, and it’s really important!
Not only is variety the spice of life, it’s also essential for a whole and healthy body.
Out of all of the diet advice out there, it’s absolutely true that keeping a balanced diet is important. Healthy proteins, fats, vegetables, fruits, whole grains… mix it up!
If you eat a wide variety of foods, in moderation, you’re sure to get all those vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and everything you need to keep your body healthy.
Food scientists haven’t even discovered all of the tiny micro-nutrients in foods, and we don’t even know what some of them do, but we do know that staying in that restricted space means you’re restricting your options.
Which means you might not be getting that wide variety of things your body needs.
Sure, you can take supplements, but the best and easiest way is to get those nutrients is from food. A multivitamin might give you Vitamin C, but when you eat a tomato, you get all the other antioxidants, phytonutrients, and all those other little components that make it such a healthy food.
It’s important to reintroduce the foods you’ve eliminated carefully, so you can make sure you are eating the widest variety possible, while still identifying and minimizing your trigger foods.
Reason #2: Because of the prebiotic effect
Getting a wide variety of nutrients is essential, but reason #2 may be even MORE important—especially for people with digestive issues! So let me break it down.
You’ve probably heard of (and might even be taking!) a probiotic supplement. Probiotics are a type of bacteria that forms the ecosystem in your gut. You may have heard it called ‘gut flora.’ These gut bacteria aid in healthy digestion, and you get them from eating things like yogurt, or fermented foods.
Because this good bacteria is a living thing, it can’t just survive on its own. It needs to eat!
Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible dietary fiber which feeds and supports that good gut bacteria. Many FODMAP foods contain prebiotics, and severely restricting your intake of prebiotics can influence the health of your gut flora. This, in turn, can lead to other digestive problems.
This is a field of study that is still emerging, and there are unfortunately no long-term studies on the effects of ten or twenty or thirty years of low-prebiotic intake. However, research does seem to suggest that staying in that severely restricted stage is not good for long-term health.
When the gut flora is not fed, the gut health is not in balance, and the body has to work even harder to maintain that essential balance.
Like with the missing nutrients from a diet lacking in variety, you can take a probiotic supplement, and it may help, but unless you’re feeding that gut bacteria, it’s not going to populate your digestive system and it’s not going to help. You’d just be taking the supplement and then not giving it what it needs to survive.
All the more reason to eat a wide variety of foods, and not stay in the elimination zone forever!
Reason #3: Because it makes your social life really tough
You already know how hard it is to make a major dietary change, even if the results are completely worth it! The truth is, a severely restricted long-term diet makes it challenging to do all the things we do as social creatures who like to share a meal.
Eating out at restaurants, attending a work potluck, enjoying a family event, weddings, birthdays, etc…
Avoiding these events (or getting stressed out when you do participate) doesn’t create a healthy long-term lifestyle, physically or emotionally.
Doing a severely restricted diet, especially when you might not even need to be that restricted, is stressful, and can be emotionally taxing. You might feel like you’ll do anything, no matter how extreme, to feel better and alleviate your IBS symptoms, but you also need to take care of your social and emotional health.
It might not be necessary to be restricting yourself forever! If you don’t transition into the challenge phase, you’re probably making it harder on yourself, and you won’t learn what your specific trigger foods are.
Further Reading: When is it time to challenge FODMAPs: 3 Simple ways to know
It’s scary to think about having to bring back high-FODMAP foods and running the risk of experiencing those symptoms again, but here’s the thing:
If you’re like me, you went for years experiencing IBS symptoms. Testing FODMAPS in a controlled way, for a short time, in order to learn your personal trigger foods is well worth the discomfort because of what you learn in the process.
Finally, keep in mind that the goal of the elimination phase is not total symptom erasure, but consistent symptom improvement.
So if you’re in that part of the FODMAP diet right now, and you’re still experiencing symptoms, look for consistent improvement, not perfection. And don’t be afraid to reach out to an expert who can help you find a solution.