The pros, cons of 'elimination diets'

When Jessica Lee Anderson decided to go on a diet, it wasn't so she would look better, but rather so she would feel better. 

"I ate a lot of processed food. I ate a lot of fast food, and I had just gotten so tired. I wasn't feeling very well," she explained.

So after doing some online research, she decided to go on an elimination diet. She cut out wheat, along with eggs, nuts and most processed foods.  

"Eliminating certain things in the diet had helped other individuals so I figured what the heck let's give it a chance," she said. 

While medically supervised elimination diets have been around for a long time, they've recently become a hot trend, said Registered Dietician Marjorie Nolan-Cohn, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

"Elimination diets are definitely gaining popularity," Nolan-Cohn said. "We have wheat-free, gluten-free, nut- or seed-free, as well as dairy-free."

She said the idea is that cutting out certain foods can cut down on certain symptoms, ranging from digestion issues to skin irritations, all while improving immune system health and increasing energy levels. 

"For someone who has a medical condition that warrants eliminating certain foods or food groups, the quality of life just improves dramatically," Nolan-Cohn said.

But gastroentologist Linda Lee, with the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, believes many people mistakenly go on an elimination diet who don't actually need to do so.    

"The problem is that people think that often it's an allergic reaction that's triggering these symptoms when actually there's no allergy at all," Lee said. "Sometimes diet is not a cause of symptoms. You might end up eliminating a lot of foods and not feeling any better. If you eliminate too fiercely, then you can run into nutritional problems."

Nolan-Cohn adds that cutting out certain food groups without the guidance of a medical professional could leave you at risk of other health problems down the road. 

"Someone who goes gluten-free could actually increase their risk of diarrhea on a regular basis," she warned. "People who go on a carb-free diet are actually increasing their risk for constipation. And a dairy-free diet is also going to contribute to potentially setting yourself up to have low bone density or osteoporosis later in life."

Lee suggested instead of elimination, many people should consider moderation. 

"If you have specific symptoms that you want to address, I would really encourage you to discuss it with your doctor first before you decide that you're going to embark on an elimination diet," Lee said.

In the meantime, Anderson said her elimination diet gave her a new lease on life and she's committed to staying on it for the long haul. 

"I do miss pizza," she said. "I miss other types of things. But nothing tastes as good as just feeling awesome."

Nolan-Cohn said it's important to remember that elimination diets are a treatment, not a cure to what ails you. And if you do find one that eases your symptoms, you'll have to eliminate that food group forever to keep reaping the benefits.