Many of the clients I see in my clinical nutrition practice come to me on elimination diets. Some have self-implemented a low-FODMAP diet due to gastrointestinal issues, while others are on low-histamine, low-salicylate, or low-mold diets. Sometimes, clients come to me eating just a small handful of foods when, in reality, they could be eating so much more! While most of my clients implemented restrictive diets with the best of intentions – to alleviate uncomfortable (and sometimes debilitating) symptoms – I have noticed that many harbor significant anxiety around eating and are fearful of reintroducing foods. This is not a healthy situation.
Elimination diets are restrictive and not meant to last forever; they are a temporary strategy for alleviating symptoms while addressing the underlying causes of a given health condition. Abundant scientific evidence indicates that the healthiest humans eat balanced, varied diets consisting of many types of plant and animal foods. However, if you've been on a restrictive diet, the idea of adding foods back to your diet may strike fear in your heart; it certainly did for me, after my long bout with severe food sensitivities and complex chronic illness. As a nutritionist, my job is to help my clients on restrictive diets resolve their food issues while expanding their food repertoires. Read on to learn about several of the strategies I use to help my clients overcome food fears as they come off of restrictive diets.
Activate Your “Rest and Digest” Response
Once sufficient gut and immune system healing have occurred (this is an entire topic unto itself that I plan to address in a separate blog), most people on restrictive diets are "in the clear" and at a point where they should start reintroducing foods. However, to successfully reintroduce foods, your nervous system needs to be in alignment with the rest of your body. In other words, you need to turn off the "fight or flight" branch of your nervous system and activate the "rest and digest" branch, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. A chronic “fight or flight” stress response triggers the release of inflammatory mediators within your body (including histamine!), activating an inflammatory response that may be mistaken for an adverse food reaction. (1,2) Chronic stress also increases intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut), thus perpetuating food sensitivities. To successfully reintroduce foods after a restrictive diet, you MUST put a damper on your chronic stress response and activate “rest and digest” mode. This will allow you to distinguish between foods that are genuinely problematic for you and ones that you can eat without problems.
Some of my favorite ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system include meditation, heart rate variability exercises, yoga, and nature exposure.
Meditation has been found to inhibit the release of inflammatory mediators from immune cells, and it is a potent activator of the parasympathetic nervous system response. (3,4) I am partial to meditation apps because they make meditation approachable for beginners and can be conveniently accessed on your smartphone. I personally use Headspace, but there are many good options out there.
Increase Your Heart Rate Variability
Heart rate variability is a measure of the variation within your heartbeats within a specific timeframe. Higher heart rate variability when the body is at rest is indicative of better health. Improved heart rate variability is associated with reduced inflammation (5); a state of lower inflammation and nervous system balance will enhance your chances of success when reintroducing foods. Getting high-quality sleep, deep breathing exercises, and meditation can all enhance your heart rate variability.
Yoga is one of my absolute favorite ways to balance the nervous system and improve overall health. Yoga reduces stress and anxiety and potently activates parasympathetic nervous system activity. (6)
I can personally attest to the healing powers of nature. I credit frequent nature exposure with helping me heal from my chronic illness and return to nature frequently to rebalance my nervous system. Nature exposure has been found to promote recovery from stress and reduces inflammation. (7,8) It also improves gut health by enhancing the diversity of the gut microbiome! (9)
Performing any one of these soothing activities before eating may reduce your stress response and ease the food reintroduction process.
Intuitive eating is a way of eating that teaches you how to eat by tuning into your natural hunger and satiety signals. Intuitive eating can also be taken further by tuning in to how specific foods make you feel. I encourage all of my clients to engage in intuitive eating behavior when reintroducing foods to their diets; it helps them forge a more profound, healthier connection with their bodies while reducing food fears. A clinical nutritionist can help you begin your journey with intuitive eating. You can also learn more about intuitive eating here.
Ask Yourself Some Important Questions
If you feel anxious and fearful about reintroducing foods after being on a restrictive diet, it may help to ask yourself a few introspective questions:
What am I afraid will happen if I eat [type of food]?
Is my fear of [type of food] getting in the way of my enjoyment of life?
What benefits would a more varied, balanced diet offer me?
What food can I introduce today (or this week) that would add nutritional value and pleasure to my life?
If you see a mental health professional, consider exploring your answers to these questions with him or her. A nutritionist familiar with motivational interviewing can also help you explore your answers to these questions, paving the way for successful, stress-free food reintroductions. This is something I routinely do in my nutrition practice; you can learn more about my practice here.
Since much of the food-reintroduction process hinges on psychological health and a reduced stress response, I like to incorporate psychobiotics into my treatment approaches for people coming off of restrictive diets. Psychobiotics are live bacteria that, when ingested in adequate amounts, confer a mental health benefit to the host – aka you! Psychobiotics influence mental health primarily by influencing the gut-brain axis, a complex network of nerves and signaling molecules that connect the enteric nervous system of the gut with the central nervous system, which includes the brain.
Several of the most notable psychobiotics studied to-date include Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Bifidobacteria infantis. (10) I typically like to use a combination, practitioner-grade probiotic that incorporates multiple psychobiotic species.
Work with a Mental Health Professional
A mental health professional can help you work through the underlying reasons for your food fears, quenching your stress response, and opening the way for successful food reintroductions and a healthier life.
Reintroducing foods after being on a restrictive diet can feel scary – I can fully relate! However, a balanced, varied diet is essential for your long-term health and overcoming your food fears will only improve your quality of life. By incorporating the strategies I’ve outlined here, and working with a qualified mental health or nutrition professional, you can successfully reintroduce foods and bring health and food enjoyment back into your life!