Over a year ago, I posted about why we started an elimination diet for our daughter, and how we went about it.
Read this post for the details, but in a nutshell: 3 of our 4 kids were allergic to milk when they were born, and we thought they all grew out of it around age 3 or so. But our daughters both began experiencing symptoms again at ages 4 and 6, respectively. Sarah, our 6-year-old, soon began having serious tummyaches and headaches (but no histamine reactions, meaning we weren’t dealing with a true allergy) at almost every meal.
After much trial and error, and numerous pediatric consults, we arrived at a diet comprised mostly of whole foods and free of gluten, dairy, soy, and seed oils. Her symptoms disappeared, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
We had a lovely six months free of headaches and tummy troubles, but then the symptoms returned with a vengeance. That’s when we started the elimination diet. The details on what we eliminated, and why, and for how long, are in that same post.
Where we left off
An elimination diet trims the patient’s diet down to the foods least likely to provoke a reaction, and s-l-o-w-l-y reintroduces other foods one by one, taking note of which foods the patient can tolerate and which ones are out. It was painful, but it worked.
The whole process took several months. When it was over, we had a long list of foods Sarah needed to avoid to stay symptom-free: some we expected, like wheat, soy, and dairy; others surprised us, like lime.
After we had our results, we had no problem keeping Sarah on the plan. If anything, she was over-eager to stick to the limited diet, showing little interest in testing new foods that might provoke the horrible stomach pains.
Sarah still had the occasional adverse reaction to foods I thought should be perfectly safe, which had me wondering if we should consider a full GAPS protocol. We ultimately decided not to strictly follow that plan, although numerous texts and conversations with friends who were walking that road were enormously helpful—both practically and motivationally—as we continued to untangle Sarah’s dietary issues.
Where we are now
Sarah stuck to her restricted diet for almost a year. Physically, she felt great.
But emotionally, it was really hard. I didn’t realize food’s power to bring people together until my daughter couldn’t eat that food. While Sarah was on the elimination diet, we hardly ever ate out (because canola oil is literally unavoidable in many American restaurants). Sharing meals with friends was extremely difficult (unless we were cooking); we even packed up our own vacation food and took it with us (which actually turned out pretty great).
We’ve let Sarah choose for herself what she wants to eat, and when, although at times we’ve reminded her that a certain food might provoke a reaction. Over the holidays, she opted to try a tiny bit of a special dessert at a family gathering, wanting to fully participate in the festivities even if it did mean enduring a reaction.
But nothing happened. No headache, no stomach pains. For days, we waited for a reaction to appear—but the reaction never came.
Emboldened by that success, Sarah started occasionally indulging in special foods for special occasions, always in community. She’d eat a Christmas cookie here, some wedding cake there, a few chips with dip at a potluck. As she gained confidence, she branched out more.
We’ve done a lot of experimenting over many months. As of right now, nothing seems to bother her—as long as the quantities are restrained—except for peanuts.
Two years ago, Sarah’s food was making her sick every day, and today she can eat almost everything. My theory (and I’m no expert, just a self-educated nutrition junkie) is that her gut was chronically irritated, and the long break from the offending foods allowed her belly to heal. Once healed, she could tolerate those foods more often. My pediatrician concurs, saying she sees it all the time.
This is also the underlying theory of the GAPS protocol: spending months (or years) eating healing foods and avoiding irritating ones allows the digestive system to heal. Our doctor thinks Sarah’s digestive system—for whatever reason—needed healing.
But we’ve been warned that Sarah will only continue to tolerate a wide range of foods if her digestive system stays healthy. Most days, we avoid the foods that have a history of causing her—and so many others—problems. We eat a ton of produce and not much sugar. We drink a whole lot of water and not much of anything else.
The big picture
Compared to a year ago, Sarah can eat almost anything these days. I’m thrilled to be able to put the elimination diet—and it’s resulting restrictions—behind us. (Knock on wood.) But I’m most happy to be able to fully participate in the community aspects of food again: to be able to eat with others without Sarah feeling sick (or without me feeling sick watching Sarah feeling isolated because she can’t eat the food, again).
In all our dietary struggles, the food part has been challenging. But it was the isolation caused by food—or our inability to eat it—that killed me. I never expected that. (Ironically, processing those struggles in community with others who were struggling with dietary issues saved me. We could lament our isolation together, which sounds pretty pathetic, but it helped so much.)
With a history of digestive distress, it’s possible that this is a road we’ll return to in the future. For now, we’re glad to be off it, and my heart goes out to those who are walking it now, especially those who don’t expect to ever to leave it.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with restricted diets, food, and community in comments.