It Changed My Life: How an Elimination Diet Made Me More Connected to My Body

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Aura Lewis)

It was New Year’s Day 2015, the most frightful day of the year for this fat girl. Slumped in front of the television overeating absolutely nothing memorable, I was about to become the very first cliché of yet another new year. For the thousandth time, I committed to figuring out my health situation, whispering it to myself aloud, “I will prioritize my health, and I will lose weight.”

I commit to losing weight on the first day of every New Year. You know the drill. It’s a thing. It’s definitely my thing. It may be your thing, too.

The year leading up to that tiny convo with just me was both joyful and, oh gosh, hard. I had finished writing my very first cookbook and the whole book-birthing process made me happier than I’d been in a while, except for the gaining-an-enormous-amount-of-weight part.

You see, that cookbook is about food gifts — the indulgent and delectable kind that come to life with chocolate, heaps of flour, all the refined sugar, and everything mouthwatering. It’s a book to love, no doubt, but the recipe development and testing process, along with all the nerves of publishing my first book, had teetered my weight to its highest yet. I couldn’t walk without serious pain in my back, legs, and feet; the tips of my fingers and toes tingled mercilessly; my clothes didn’t fit, again; and my self-esteem (never that high before) was as low as the near-empty wine bottle I poured from most nights.

(Image credit: Aura Lewis)

“I will prioritize my health, and I will lose weight.” I’ve whispered that aloud so many times because, if I’m being upfront here, I should say, I’ve always been a fat girl. And, to be clear on my position, I’ve always been unhappy being a fat girl.

I don’t want to diss anyone who is happy in their skin — we should all be so lucky to be happy and healthy at every size. I, however, was despondent. I hated my thighs rubbing together, I hated how difficult and expensive it was to clothe myself, I hated how people judged me, and, mostly, I hated how I judged me. No matter the actual weight on the scale, I was forever a fat girl in my brain. After being bullied by kids for being bigger, after being ignored by boys at all the school dances, after being picked last for every sporting activity, after being told, “You’re pretty for a big girl,” too many times, I had convinced myself that everyone was right. Being fat wasn’t just a state of my body any longer; it was who I was, and it became a state of my mind.

No matter the actual weight on the scale, I was forever a fat girl in my brain.

But on this New Year’s Day, in between big gulps of red, the whispers stuck. I did actually prioritize my health over everything and even over all the delicious ingredients in my now former pantry.

The very next day, I reached out to a friend of a friend (who was more stranger than friend but also a nutritionist) and, with her guidance, rid my pantry of anything that wasn’t wholesome. To prioritize me, I had to get rid of all those delicious, indulgent ingredients and basically start from scratch — with my pantry and my body.

My friend of a friend suggested I take on a total elimination diet. An elimination diet would involve removing everything that could cause allergies, inflammation, digestive issues, nutritional deficiencies, and, for me, obesity, from my daily food intake. Elimination diets range in terms of what exact foods are allowed and removed, but most cut out gluten, dairy, soy, refined sugar, alcohol, eggs, and processed food. Some also cut out peanuts and corn (although I didn’t eliminate those entirely). After getting rid of all the foods that may have gotten me here, I’d reintroduce everything one at a time to figure out which foods made me feel good and which ones were, well, not supportive of my potentially healthy body.

(Image credit: Aura Lewis)

I had been so reluctant to do an elimination diet in the past because, hello, I love all the foods. But one week later, I was the fat girl opting to only put plants in my mouth and I abruptly stopped all refined sugar, caffeine, animal products, dairy, gluten, certain oils (like bad fats), alcohol, and packaged/processed or fast foods.

I ate an entirely plant-based diet mainly because it was my friend’s area of expertise and, of all the diets I’d ever tried since I was age 10, it was the very easiest food plan for me to understand. Most importantly, portion control is less of an issue when you’re eating only vegetables, fruit, good fats, seeds, nuts, and legumes and, let’s be real, I’ve always had a problem with authority, especially any sort of authority telling me how much I can eat. (I knew practicing portion control was a thing, but it was something I would tackle slowly after I got the good foods into me.)

Over time (meaning months), I added eggs, fish, and gluten/whole grains back in — though I still keep gluten-free pasta in my pantry because I like the texture in certain dishes. I also added in a weekend glass of wine because I love it, yet steered clear of cocktails because of the added sugars. And after losing 70 pounds over the course of a year, I added in a small portion of grass-fed beef on Saturday nights.

To be clear, I wasn’t over-the-top reckless. I did all this in cooperation with my primary care doctor. When I shared my plan, she was supportive, offering up a complementary vitamin regime and ways to get enough nutrients, like protein (i.e., prioritize greens, beans, and eggs) or calcium (i.e., cauliflower, dark greens, broccoli, okra, and tofu are higher in calcium).

With this new way of thinking about food, my meals changed dramatically. Most mornings, smoothies were my breakfast of choice; they were loaded with vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and good fats. Lunchtime salads became bigger and more vibrant, filled with a myriad of ingredients versus the same old lettuce leaves and cherry tomato halves. Animal-protein-filled dinner plates were recast as quick bean hashes, veggie sautés, and spiced-up stews.

Without eating refined sugar, I craved sweets less, opting instead for avocado with a squeeze of lime or a few squares of dark chocolate dipped in almond butter. And instead of bitching about how expensive it is to eat healthfully or even organic, I bought mostly plants and a lot less animal protein and, sure thing, my monthly food budget was halved almost instantly.

(Image credit: Aura Lewis)

But it wasn’t all about the food. The most critical part of my elimination diet was what I did after eating the food, quite literally. I listened. I listened to the gurgling sounds of my stomach and started to feed myself before my stomach got loud. I paid attention to any headaches and certainly noticed I had far fewer of them than ever before. I was aware of every bathroom break, and how I felt afterward. My lifelong sinus issues felt more in control and rarely morphed into full-on bacterial infections. I felt stronger, less tired, and way more alert.

I remember all this because I wrote it all down. After eating, I engaged in a daily journaling ritual that logged the foods that made me feel fit and the ones that, well, didn’t. My days went from eating food mostly for comfort to eating food for fuel and — gasp! — to simply feel really darn good. I paid attention to my body, listening to what it craved, what it wanted absolutely nothing to do with, and what made it feel altogether awesome. Thanks to an elimination diet, thanks to eating a plant-based diet, and thanks to logging all the feelings over the course of a year, my body morphed down to a shape and size I hadn’t seen in 10+ years.

Now, 70 pounds isn’t all the weight I want to lose — I mean, to most doctors’ standards, I’m still overweight — but this health stuff isn’t a sprint, it’s something I’ll have to pay attention to all the days of my life. And for me, an elimination diet was a delicious sort of jolt that helped me toss the “fat girl” title and see myself as worthy of all the very best foods.

An elimination diet was a delicious sort of jolt that helped me toss the fat girl title and see myself as worthy of all the very best foods.

You see, it’s hard to shift a fat girl’s mindset. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed brimming kale salads or green grain bowls because I got looks when there wasn’t a cup of dressing or eight pieces of bread saddled alongside. I was asked constantly, “Is that enough food for you?” But as I ate the good foods this time around and shed the weight and started to feel zero pain, I shed caring what anyone thought. In fact, the very moment I made it through week one of this fairly hardcore elimination diet successfully was the moment I started to see all my beautiful potential. When you see yourself tackle the biggest issue of your life with some success, you learn to like yourself. And, in the ideal situation, if all the (sweet potato) chips fall where they are destined to, you learn to love yourself.

Through this elimination diet, I lead with vegetables and that, in turn, lead me through the sort of mindset shift that some of us fat girls (and guys) need. Now, count me the first one on the dance floor on New Year’s Eve and I love the first day of a new year. I consider it a moment of reflection, a feast with tons of very good-for-you food (much of which I make from scratch), and a celebration of that moment when I began to love myself. These days, I’m big into celebrating the little things and the big things. And the big thing is, I’m done calling myself a fat girl, at last.

About Maggie Battista

(Image credit: Maggie Battista)

Maggie Battista is a food writer, author of Food Gift Love , and a pop-up shop maker opening a permanent food market in Boston. Roost Books will publish her second cookbook, A New Way to Food, in 2019.