Have you ever heard of a healing diet? They are not a fad, nor a typical ten-step, quick fix promise to immediate weight loss, but they are rising in importance as we seek to live longer, healthier lives with sustainable lifestyle choices. But what are they and what are their benefits?
Eating, movement and sleep. Our lives are strengthened and enhanced by the right amount of each. Alter just one dramatically and your whole life alters with it. So imagine if someone told you that you’re allowed only three hours of sleep a night, or that you had to crawl instead of walk? Totally ludicrous. But when it comes to eating, going to the extreme is not unheard of, the obvious being eating disorders, disordered eating and extreme weight loss diets.
But in this case, what if your health was on the line and a healing diet was suggested, which means you were told that you couldn’t eat some of your favourite foods and that you would even have to cut out whole food groups to heal? Or the list of foods you couldn’t eat meant that you could no longer frequent restaurants or go for drinks with friends, no wine and cheese at your book club, no Friday night quick and cheap family pizza dinner.
Insane right? And restrictive! Enough to drive a person mad, or at least inflict immense stress, and even grief. Who would be nutty enough to deliberately eliminate the social joys of eating, annihilate all power of choice over food and discard the comforts and pleasures of eating? Especially when it’s presented to you in this vision of complete and utter restriction!
Guess what? You may be nutty enough! But in a really good way, a loving and committed, curious and hopeful way, because if you are suffering from ongoing symptoms that are not improving with all other effort, you may just want to embrace (not fight) a temporary change in your diet to heal.
Benefits of a Healing Diet
- healing the intestinal wall
- addressing multiple food sensitivities
- reducing or eliminating inflammation
- learning what foods are exacerbating skin conditions
- balancing your moods
- eliminating digestive distress
- reducing or eliminating brain fog
- reducing or eliminating joint and muscle pain
- potentially eliminating or putting disease into remission
Your Digestion and a Healing Diet
All of the above ailments are largely related to the state of your digestive system. Digestive problems can show up in many ways beyond the most telltale signs of constipation or diarrhea. Bloating or feeling sleepy or irritated after a meal, feeling nauseous, or having trouble sleeping are also strong signs of a disrupted, inflamed or inefficient digestive system and generally this comes down to an IBS diagnosis. The problem with the IBS diagnosis is that it is just a filtering system, it rules out harmful serious diseases like Crohn’s or Celiac, but it puts you in a category that has no real direction for healing, it just manages symptoms. This is not sustainable and not good for your long term health so at this point it’s time to dig deep and get curious.
A healing diet is most likely the route you will end up taking, but as I mentioned above, it’s important to get curious about your lifestyle, to assess if there is anything outright that you may be eating regularly that could be affecting you, or if there are any unresolved emotions that may be creating some form of anxiety. Our emotions have a huge influence on our gut and sometimes addressing that first can make all the difference in your overall health. It could be a combination of both mental and physical conditions and you may need to work on both of them, but for the sake of the healing diet, the focus will be on food, and most likely you will also learn that food affects your moods anyway, so it will all come together in the end, or at least set you in a new direction of healing and understanding. What’s important is that you look at the healing diet as a way of calming your digestive system and all systems connected to it and influenced by it. It’s super insightful and extremely valuable to learn what foods harm you personally, and what foods nourish you. Everyone is different so there isn’t one set healing diet, and something that nourishes you, like fermented foods perhaps, may be harmful to someone else. It’s exploratory and personal. When you have the support and guidance to do it correctly and effectively, the benefits are immense and worth every social, emotional and physical challenge a healing diet can initially present.
What Does a Healing Diet Look Like?
Let’s propose that you have the skin condition eczema and no amount of natural or prescribed topical cream has worked. You have addressed whether or not it is environmental (a friend of mine had it on her hands when she worked in a busy flower shop, and then it went away when she stopped working there) and you have also considered if stress is aggravating it. After all other exploration with no results, you come to food. The purpose of a healing diet is to reveal potential causes of internal inflammation that may be expressing itself through your skin. To begin, you would eliminate common inflammatory foods like gluten. I know, I know poor old gluten getting all the blame, but it’s the best place to start, and honestly, most likely contributes to some form of inflammation in your body. We rule it out by eliminating it for a period. If there are absolutely no changes to any aspect of your health, including the eczema, then we can add it back in and go on to the next food, which will probably be dairy. The changes appear rather quickly, this is not excruciating, and doesn’t go on forever, but there is committed, loving time focused on your body and what it is communicating to you and this is a time for listening and observing.
Back in the Spring of 2014 a strange little patch of dry skin appeared on my left eye. Usually when I am inflamed, my skin expresses itself through acne so this was new for me. I was curious but not alarmed and I didn’t do anything about it until it started to expand and began to look like this in September, crusty, wrinkly and heavy. At this point I was getting self conscious and definitely curious, but I couldn’t figure out what was causing it because I wasn’t eating any foods that I typically react to.
By early November it had spread to my other eye and I looked like this.
Some days were worse than others and I was trying to find a correlation with food because there seemed to be no rhyme or reason. Crying made it worse, far worse, and I was starting to question coffee and tea, so I cut those out with some success, but not much. By December, at my worst, I looked like this. And the hives I used to get occasionally, I was now getting daily.
I went to the clinic on the morning I woke up like this and I was prescribed a cream to reduce the inflammation. It helped a little but it didn’t get to the root of why this was happening. So I decided I had to get more curious and I went back in my mind to the spring when it first began.
That spring I had begun exploring a Paleo diet. As a result I had immense energy, and I was eating more vegetables and healthy fats than ever, but I had also immediately introduced copious amounts of fermented foods like kombucha and sauerkraut, as well as cocoa, avocado, olives, bone broth, high quality salamis and bacon, a sugar free, all-natural energy drink for early morning workouts, oysters, nuts, and I was drinking black tea. It turns out that I had histamine intolerance and was overburdening my system by eating a lot of foods high in histamine and foods that liberated histamine. Every single healthy food on that list was ultimately making my body cry out and not only was I not listening, but I was running full steam ahead consuming them with gusto. Once I made this correlation, I cut the foods out and my eczema healed within 3 weeks. There is more to histamine intolerance and why we may experience it, so if you are curious about it, there is a ton of good information out there on it. I now eat almost all of these foods again, but in moderation. A healing diet requires patience, careful observation, support and commitment to getting better, but most important, it’s highly individual so it requires that you be curious about your body. I know another woman who had a reaction like mine, but hers was to eggs, and another woman with the same reaction, but hers was due to a sudden increase in the consumption of miso. We are all different and it’s one of the reasons why no one diet, not a healing diet, nor a mainstream popular diet is best for everyone.
Do I have to be on a healing diet forever?
No. But maybe yes. You are unique, so your journey will depend on your genes, history, stress level, overall health to begin with, your motivation, quality of support, prep time, the level of inflammation you currently have, and your overall ability to understand and break through your emotional connections to eating. However, four points stand out for me as the most important steps to success.
- Emotional connections to eating
- Level of healing required
- Investment of time in food preparation
Support is vital and having good support can vastly reduce the amount of time you spend on a healing diet. For instance, let’s say a common source of stress relief and fun for you is to go for drinks and dinner with your friends. On these nights you usually have a couple drinks, share some appys, have a meal, and potentially share a dessert. (You have a need for a healing diet if any aspect of that evening makes you puffy, itchy, immediatley tired, bloated or distended, irritated or emotionally unstable.) However now that you are on a healing diet there is a high likelihood that most of the menu items are off limits to you, or at least you can’t participate in the shared drinks, appys or dessert. If you have supportive friends, you will feel comfortable expressing your health goals and sharing the reasons for why you are temporarily eliminating certain foods. Your friends most likely will order something that you can eat too, or at least empathize and ask to be informed so they can support you. This will make a world of a difference in your ability to push through the time on the healing diet.
But if you experience ambivalence, attitude or judgement (“gluten-free is just a fad”) and end up feeling embarrassed or even question your own goals, chances are you will give in during that meal and eat something that will negatively affect your efforts and get down on yourself for giving in, or you will choose to avoid these social situations so you have more control, but then you risk isolation, and feeling isolated will not empower you to move forward with your goals.
To avoid these social challenges, you can seek new restaurants that support your new healing diet or you can host your friends in your home and serve a dish or two that you know you can eat, they can bring the other dishes. You will be more likely to stay on your healing diet with no flare-ups, and with less social stress if you can incorporate your friends in this instance. And it goes without saying that if your partner or family are on board, your changes will come with more ease as well.
Emotional Connections to Eating
Family and friends aside, your own emotional connection to food and to your health goals are paramount to the speed of your healing. If you already feel deprived in any aspect of your life (particularly relationships), chances are cutting out foods you rely on for comfort and fulfillment will potentially create resistance and feelings of resentment. It’s best to stay connected to what your health goals are with daily meditation, solid support from the practitioner you are working with, and/or psychological help if you have strong emotions arising with these changes.
Most of us have deep attachments to food and no matter how much we want to get well, the idea of removing something that we have relied on (whether for nutrition or emotional need) can bring up a sense of loss that has not been dealt with in the past because we’ve replaced it with food. Cutting out that food brings the loss to the forefront, and then we are faced with the need to fill it with something else. If we can be present with our emotions around the removal of these foods and safely address the source of loss/grief, we not only provide ourselves the opportunity for physical healing through the elimination of aggravating foods, but we also create emotional healing by addressing our feelings.
You are giving yourself (and those affected around you) a real gift by committing to your healing. It is deeply enriching and strengthening to stand by your goals and come out the other side. Although a number of challenges may arise with the elimination of some foods, it’s so vital to remind yourself that this is your future, your longevity. And in the grand scheme of your life, a small period of time without chocolate, coffee, cheese or bread at a restaurant is but a tiny spec on the timeline of your life, yet it will have a vast impact on your quality of life. So if you can connect to your emotions, or get support when you can’t while you go through this process, you will complete your healing a lot faster, and with immense grace.
Level of Healing Required
Okay, so you are set to go, you have support and you are emotionally connected to your goals towards healing. Now it comes down to the physical realities of how damaged or frail your digestive or related systems may be. If your ailments are relatively new or acute (like my bout with eczema), it may be a simple guided, short process through an elimination style diet for anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks (on average), then a gradual reintroduction of foods to learn what food is causing aggravation. Once you know which foods are the source and you eliminate them, you are likely to be done. In a few weeks or months you can introduce that food again in a small portion and see how you react. It can be a real bummer of a realization if the culprit food is one of your favourites. Cutting it out for a month or so was not bad, but no cheese for the rest of your life!? No way!! What may happen is you bring that food back in, then get sick again, and back and forth until one day you just accept it is not worth the physical pain and you cut it out. That roller coaster can affect the time frame of your physical healing, but once you experience vitality for a period of time without that food it will be much easier to keep it out of your diet.
If you have been struggling for a long time, realistically, the process of healing will take more time and effort. Don’t let this dissuade you though because you have so much ahead of you and you are worth the effort and results. In all honesty, it can take years to heal a damaged system, and realistically you may never be ale to return to your old way of eating, and you may never be able to eat a specific food again without repercussions. This can be said for anyone who learns they have Celiac or non-celiac gluten sensitivity and they can’t eat gluten again. BUT!! And BUT is capitalized because it goes without saying, the quality of your physical health affects your mental health, and your mental health impacts upon how you see your world around you. If cutting out personally harmful foods and adopting a new way of eating brings you vitality and peace, isn’t that worth it? Hands down, when I eat garbage, my mood turns to garbage and then I’m just a sludge of a mother to my son. I know that is blunt and harsh, but it’s my reality when I don’t take care of myself, and then that inflicts on my son’s reality too. When I lay my head on my pillow, look back on my day and face myself, nothing hurts me more than the realization of how my short temper and impatience from an otherwise avoided bad mood impacted upon how I engaged with my son, and how he experienced his world as a result of how I spoke to him. When I eat nourishing foods that build me up, rather than harmful foods that shut me down, I am calm, patient, present, grounded, happy and generous. Why would I settle for less for myself or my son? So a healing diet may take some time if your system has been run down for a while, and it may even be a permanent diet, but the positive changes to the quality of your life are worth so much more than the pre-dinner bun and butter! And the beauty of a healing diet, no matter how long it takes, is that every aspect of your life is impacted. Moods, weight, skin, libido, creativity, energy, pain management, and outlook are all positively impacted, so even if you have been struggling with sore joints or immense acne for years and are on a healing diet to address those, chances are other parts of your body will heal as well. A hugely inspiring woman who has created success and made the most of a healing diet is Danielle Walker. I highly recommend you check out her story and follow along with her. She went from being extremely sick with Ulcerative Colitis to vibrant and healthy through management of food.
Investment Of Time In Food Preparation
Speed of recovery and success at a healing diet, or any change in diet for that matter comes with planning and preparation. It can feel truly debilitating if you are out and about and need lunch or a snack but there are no available options. If you have created the time to plan and prep your meals, it will be so much easier. It doesn’t say much for spontaneity or eating something for the joy or celebration of it in that moment, but prep will go a long way towards the success of your healing. And in all reality, we justify “treats” far too often, and eat far more than we need. Also, don’t forget, this may be temporary, it may not be your whole life, and in all actuality, you will probably grow to like your new way of eating because it is empowering to fulfill your goals and stick to something. Plus, you will feel better on your new “diet” and that is motivating.
With some guidance, learning how to plan and prep your meals can massively impact your overall state of health. Even if you are not needing a healing diet, prep is hugely beneficial. If you work Monday to Friday and spend some time on Sunday organizing healthy snacks and meals for the week ahead, I guarantee you will be healthier. If you are short on time and feeling hungry, what are you going to realistically reach for, veggies that need cleaning and cutting and hummus that still needs to be made, or a handful of crackers and a bowl of ice cream? Having healthy food on hand not only takes the guess work out, but it also takes emotions out. If you are not currently working with a health practitioner on a healing diet, you can go to my Pinterest page for prep ideas.
How Do I Come Off a Healing Diet?
Slowly! With purpose and care, introducing one food at a time. Blah! I know, I know, it’s a drag, I admit it, and I have done it so I empathize with how this process feels. But it’s important to be mindful and to take care when you start eating old trigger foods again. Once you start feeling better there is a tendency to relax back into your old foods. “Oh I will just have this one cookie it won’t matter, I’m feeling so good.” Then the next day, “well it’s healthy yogurt, I’ll just have a bit.” Or you go out for dinner and feel celebratory about the fact that you feel better and order the pasta dish that your server recommends, and within three days you’ve introduced multiple foods that you’ve been without and your body is inundated with information too fast. It is natural to gravitate towards eating your old comfort foods once you start feeling better and realistically you may have to go through this process a number of times before successfully transitioning from a healing diet to what I call Your Diet. It can be frustrating, isolating, painful and hard to manage at times, but what’s most important is that you care for yourself and acknowledge your efforts regularly. And we can’t forget that support is vital. So it’s ideal to complete the reintroduction stage of a healing diet by introducing one food at a time, giving it at least three days for each food and being mindful and alert as to how your body reacts and feels. If your body reacts, you stay off that food, don’t introduce old foods for another few days so your system can relax, then you can try another food, and so on. This is simplified for this blog post, if you are working with someone during this process, they will guide you with more information and support. This article is not to replace this process, it is to inform you of what will be involved. So yes, this can be a long process, but if you consider the amount of years you will be on this earth, and put into perspective how short of a period this process is within the big picture, it’s a minute length of time with a massive pay-off, a valuable investment.
What Foods Are Removed on a Healing Diet?
On a healing diet you would first remove the foods that you suspect are bothering you. Generally though, the common reactive foods that go first are gluten, dairy and soy. The start of a healing diet is basically an elimination diet so some of this may seem familiar to you if you have been on one before. A healing diet often requires cutting out more foods though, depending on the severity of your symptoms and how long you have suffered. Other foods you may cut out are grains, beans, nightshades, nuts, eggs, alcohol, sugar, cocoa and legumes. It can also be narrowed down to removing specific categories based on digestion like cutting out foods high in histamine, or removing foods high in FODMAPS. A healing diet is a process, it is not a “lose 5 pounds in 5 days” sort of mentality, it is a much longer commitment but one with much longer lasting effects.
What Can I Eat On a Healing Diet?
More than you realize! It’s true, it’s not the standard American diet (which is a good thing) and you can’t run into Starbucks for a cookie and a latte when you’re in a rush, or order a pizza Friday night after a busy week. But we choose these options out of habit and ease and there is no reason why new options can’t be created that are equally easy, it just requires a bit of a mind shift, some time and some new resources. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it will become easier and soon Friday night will arrive and you will pull out a fully prepped meal from the freezer, or you will know of the pizza joint that sells gluten-free, dairy-free pizza that your kids actually like too.
Healing diets are highly personal, so there isn’t an exact list of foods that everyone eats safely. And this article is not instructional, it’s an overview of healing diets so if you were to embark on one you would need specific guidance catered towards you. But these foods are generally safe:
- most vegetables (preferably organic)
- most fruits (preferably organic)
- herbs and spices
- meat and poultry (preferably from grass-finished or cage-free animals)
- healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, goat and sheep milk, olives
- wild caught fish
There are some nutritious foods that you don’t see on that list because often enough they come up as a challenge for people, but if you don’t react, then these foods can also be eaten:
- quinoa, millet, rice, amaranth, oats and other grains
- nuts and seeds, including chia, flax and hemp
- raw dairy
- fermented foods
You can see there is still a lot of food here that is pleasurable, accessible and nutritious, and this is by no means a complete list for you personally because you are different from everyone else, but it gives you an idea of what options you have to begin with and what you can grow with. Above all, you will feel better after you eliminate the foods that harm you, and add more of the foods that nourish you.
The Difference Between an Elimination Diet and a Healing Diet
An elimination diet is a fantastic tool for finding out what foods aggravate you and I recommend that everyone do it with support at least once, because even if you are not overtly suffering from major symptoms, it can be immensely insightful and you can derive a ton of energy from eliminating foods that are generally inflammatory. A healing diet takes it to the next level though and inquires beyond the typical removal of soy, dairy, gluten and eggs. It will also focus on incorporating more organic and non-GMO foods, as well as introducing more nutrient dense foods. A healing diet can also be longer than an elimination diet depending on how much healing is required, particularly of your digestive system.
Staying With a Healing Diet
There is surprisingly no shortage of people online who blog about their experiences on healing diets, and they provide a ton of insight and assistance. These blogs usually have forums, Facebook pages and comment sections that are filled with people talking about their experiences. Their Instagram and Pinterest pages can also be super helpful and inspiring. Here are a few examples:
I adore, admire and appreciate Danielle Walker and her openness and genuine nature.
Mickey and Angie of Autoimmune Paleo are extremely bright, well prepped and knowledgable.
Dr. Terry Wahls is a huge inspiration and a must follow even if you don’t have a disease of any sort.
As you will be working with a health practitioner during your healing diet, this is ultimately about maintaining the lifestyle or diet once you have completed your time together. I work with people on healing diets and have also been on them myself for eczema, SIBO, Raynauds, acne and depression, and now live on a modified version, so I am completely available to work with you if you choose to try this route of healing.
Hello energy, hello peace of mind! Results are individual based on severity of your condition, but an overall increase in your energy level will be immensely liberating, as will reduction or removal of your symptoms, I promise. A healing diet takes dedication and a willingness to dig deep and do the work at getting better. It goes outside the conventional reach for a drug first and asks instead that you not only trust in yourself and listen to your body’s communication, but also that you consider and hopefully adapt to the idea that food is an aid in healing, and food is often the source of harm. Embracing a path of healing that includes decision making around food consumption will benefit your whole life and you will not regret it.
If you would like to leave a comment about your experiences with healing symptoms through a healing diet, I would love for you to share it below for others to learn too. And if you would like to work with me, please feel free to connect and we can discuss how to work together. All my best to you on this exciting and liberating path to healing!