We’ll call these first few weeks of your new diet “The Challenge,” both because it is the phase when many are just doing a test to see if changing their diet will help in one way or another and because emotionally this initial period of change is just that: a challenge. Like any challenge this too can be overcome, with a little planning, patience and perseverance. Here’s our suggested game plan to get you through this critical period.
1. Know your goals before you start.
There are lots of reasons you might be starting a 'custom' diet with one or more new food restrictions. Your doctor may have just diagnosed you with a life-threatening food allergy or genetic condition such as celiac, requiring that you 'quit cold turkey' the offending ingredients - overnight and forever. On the other end of the spectrum, your doctor may have suggested you try an ‘elimination diet’ for a little while to see what happens. If so, you'll still need to take out the potentially offending ingredients for a while, but you'll also need to track how this - and the foods' later re-introduction - affects you, in a detailed food journal. Check out our Food Challenges FAQ's for more information.
2. Make incremental changes.
In our experience, there are 3 main components to The Challenge:
- emotional (frustration, anger and even grief that we have to lose foods we like, combined with the “I-don’t-wanna’s” about learning new tricks and taking on something new),
- practical/logistical (what do I cook? Which products do I buy?), and
- flavorful (“you call this pasta?!?”).
The good news is that all 3 get better with time.
For The Challenge period, our goal is incremental change. Later, we’ll talk about whole new ways to put together a meal to highlight what you can eat so you don’t notice so much what you can’t. But for The Challenge, we want to keep it as similar to what you’re used to as possible – especially if you’re trying to bring kids along with you on this new food journey.
So how do we do that? By looking for easy substitutions you can make within the meals you are already used to preparing and eating. Yes, you may still find it frustrating that brown rice pasta doesn’t taste just the same as wheat pasta, but at least you’ve still got your favorite sauce on top. You have a little less to grieve, and your taste buds have a little less to adjust to, if you’ve only lost your favorite noodles and not “pasta dishes” altogether.
3. Go cold turkey.
First we say “make incremental changes” and then we say “go cold turkey”? What gives?
Here’s the deal. When you’re trying to change your diet – especially when that means removing fundamental building blocks like gluten and/or dairy – it’s best to take the pain of that removal all at once rather than weaning down over time. This is absolutely critical if you’re doing this because you’ve just gotten a potentially life-threatening diagnosis like celiac disease or a serious food allergy. Yet it’s no less true if you’re just trying an elimination diet on your own to see if removing certain foods will get rid of that nagging belly ache, help you lose weight or just make you feel better.
We say this for two reasons. The first is for anyone doing an elimination diet or food challenge and it's purely practical: doing a food challenge isn’t a whole lot of fun and depending on the food groups it can be a pretty major disruption. But the sooner you cut out all of the questionable food or foods, the sooner your body can get to a baseline without them and the sooner you’ll either (a) know that it worked (and transition over to our strategies for maintaining your new diet for the long haul) or (b) realize that it didn’t and sit down with a great-big-steaming-bowl of whatever food you’ve missed the most.
The second reason applies to everyone -- and is frankly more emotional: when we eat the foods we love, our bodies tend to ask us for more. On a little mini level, every time we eat a treat like a chocolate chip cookie, we go through a little grieving process at the end of the cookie simply because we have to stop and we can’t have more. But once you’ve told yourself that gluten (or heaven-forbid, chocolate) is out and these cookies just aren’t going to happen any more, every time you eat that one cookie – or even that one bite – you put yourself through that whole mourning process all over again.
I learned this the hard way. When our second child was born, I was told to start an extensive elimination diet to test whether food intolerances were causing his failure to thrive and significant discomfort. After several months without dairy, gluten, soy, egg, nuts, fish or chocolate (yes, chocolate!), I gradually tried re-introducing foods to see how he would react. With most (including dairy, gluten, soy and eggs), he reacted after just one little trial, making it abundantly apparent that that food was still a no-go. But with tree nuts it took a full week of exposure to start to show any reactions, a week in which I had blissfully floated my way through carefully rationed but no-less heavenly treats of five pecans here and a handful of roasted almonds there. Alas, by the end of the week he began to show his tell-tale rash and I knew the nuts had to go.
Now I should say that I hadn’t particularly missed nuts through the many months before - compared to the loss of chocolate, the lack of nuts really wasn't gonna make the 6:00 news. But after this week of rediscovery it was pure agony to remove them from my diet once more. For literally weeks afterwards, merely walking past the cabinet where my husband keeps his copious stash of pistachios, almonds and walnuts was nothing short of torture. Thus we strongly suggest that once you decide to cut a food out, you go ‘cold turkey’
4. Make a plan.
Especially for those of us who don’t particularly want to spend all our time thinking about cooking, a well-defined plan of attack can make all the difference. Whether it’s for a 2-4 week Challenge or for the first few weeks of a new regime you expect to become permanent, the goal is to focus your efforts on those incremental changes that really are necessary to go cold turkey. Here's a simple exercise we’ve developed to help you plan out your initial menus so you aren't scrambling to do the math once you're already hungry
5. Stick to your plan and be patient with yourself -- and with your tastebuds.
Now that you’ve made your plan of attack, you're ready to find products that you can in fact still eat. Take the time to read the labels – you’ll get faster at this over time – and be brave about trying new brands you’ve never heard of before. Depending on your restrictions, you’ll likely find that there are lots of ‘mom and pops’ out there making everything from cookies to pasta with ingredients you don’t even stock in your pantry.
On that note, we have to put in a word about ‘taste’. As we said above, one of the 3 components of adjusting to a new diet is certainly ‘flavorful’. When you start making the switch to a different set of ingredients, you will inevitably find that they taste a little – or a lot – different. Sometimes you might prefer that taste, other times you will not. Alas, these are the facts of life. The good news is that while those flavors may not change, your taste buds will. Over time you will find that what tasted strange at first comes to taste just fine down the road – heck, even our then-six year old quite happily came to drink soy, rice, coconut or goat’s milk, where before he had been strictly (and rather loudly) a cow’s milk kind of a guy.
So get out there and get started. The worst that happens is that you go without a few foods for a few weeks and nothing happens - so you get to go back to eating them once again. The best thing that could happen is that you rid your body of what for you turns out to have been toxic and you never know where the health benefits of that might lead you. Either way, the process gets better over time, and as I have often reminded myself on a similar journey, either way you win.