My nutrition challenge is over… now what?
If you’re reading this post, chances are that you are either wrapping up some kind of nutrition challenge (maybe The 21-Day Sugar Detox, a 30-day Paleo challenge or an elimination diet as recommended by a nutrition or healthcare practitioner). Often the last few days of the challenge leave you wondering how you’ll ease back into your “normal” life, or what foods you want to splurge on now that the restrictions are over. Here’s my take on how to approach re-introducing foods after your challenge has come to an end.
1. If you were avoiding certain foods (typically gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts, nightshades, etc.) as part of an elimination-provocation plan…
Then you’ll need to very carefully re-introduce them one at a time. Here’s what you’ll need to do:
- The day after your program ends, choose one food to eat again – typically this will be the food you missed the most!
- Eat that food at all three meals along with whatever other foods you had been including in the elimination – meaning you ONLY re-introduce one potentially problematic food at a time and not more than one.
- DO NOT eat that food again for the following two days.
- Note any changes in the following FOR A FULL 72-HOURS AFTER EATING THE FOOD: mood, energy, appetite, digestive function like bloating, gas, loose stool or diarrhea, headaches, inflammation, and brain fog or mental clarity.
- Your notes will be some of the best guides you have as to whether or not you are sensitive to the food you just re-introduced. Food sensitivity reactions can happen immediately but can also have delayed-onset for up to around 72 hours (3 days!).
- NOTE: I don’t actually recommend EVER re-introducing gluten containing grains like wheat, barley, rye and oats into your diet, nor do I recommend making pasteurized dairy or unfermented soy products any regular part of your life. These foods are shown to contribute to a myriad of health problems and, typically, tend to crowd-out much more health promoting options like vegetables, well-raised meat & eggs and healthy, naturally occurring fats in the diet.
2. If you were on a plan to be more strict about avoiding food additives, sweeteners and other slightly processed foods (a strict Paleo challenge would fall into this category)…
Then you’ll want to think about the following before jumping off the deep-end and burying yourself in a pile of grain-free baked goods or a bottle of wine:
- How do you feel now that you’ve changed your food?
- How do you think you’ll feel if you eat something you estimate is less-than-healthy for you?
- If you think you’ll feel less-than-optimal, how long will that feeling last?
- Will the ill-health effects of the foods you want to eat again last more than a couple of hours? More than a day? More than a week?
- What will you be disrupting with the foods: blood sugar or digestive function?
- Has the time and energy commitment that’s gone into avoiding the food(s) added more stress to your life than it alleviated signs and symptoms of ill health?
Ultimately it’s up to you to choose what and how often you’ll add certain foods back into your regularly scheduled food programming, but considering the above questions is a good idea. You’ll become a lot more MINDFUL of your choices, rather than allowing them to become defaults simply because they are habits or they represent the easy way out. I tend to think that a food that initiates an acute blood sugar spike in an otherwise even situation day in and day out is less deleterious in the long term than foods that disrupt digestive function that may perpetuate for days or weeks on end and interfere with immunity in a more intense way.
Then you’ll want to think about the following before chugging a glass of fruit juice, a pile of candy, some cookies or even a piece of pizza:
- What was your diet like before The 21-Day Sugar Detox (21DSD) and were you on Level 1, 2, or 3?
- How do you feel now that you’ve reduced the amount of sugar or dense carbohydrates you’ve been eating?
- How has your sleep been? What about your digestive function?
- Do you think that eating sugary or carb-rich foods will make you feel better or worse?
- Has the time and energy commitment that’s gone into avoiding sugar and dense carbs added more stress to your life than it alleviated your cravings and how much sugar or carbs has controlled your life and food choices?
For those of you on Levels 1 and 2, The 21DSD may have been a HUGE change in dietary habits for you. If that’s the case, and if you were previously eating bread, cereal and pasta, then refer to point #1 in this post. You’ve essentially been on an elimination diet for three weeks and need to go SLOWLY when re-introducing foods, especially the ones that are highly allergenic like wheat, dairy, and soy.
Consider how often you used to consume sweetened or carb-rich foods, then decide whether adding some of those foods back in perhaps once a day versus at every meal will be something more livable for you on a regular basis. Fruit, for example, is a great way to enjoy a dessert or a treat, but most of it isn’t included on The 21DSD. Consider whether you previously ate sweets or dense carbs as rewards, as comfort, or even just as part of a habit. Then consider whether or not eating them made you feel your best or helped you to reach your goals. A LOT of people lose weight on The21DSD, but it’s not the primary goal of the program. If you did lose weight, recognize that the bite here or there of sweets that seemed innocent enough before may have been too much for you and for your goals. If your goal was not primarily weight loss but rather to break unhealthy habits and conquer cravings, think about how eating sweets again triggers the problems and causes a downward spiral, then become mindful and conscious when choosing what to eat on a daily basis.
To safely and slowly add some naturally occurring sugars (like fruit) and starches back into your diet, take care to consider portions and the timing of these foods. Fruits should not be eaten alone if blood sugar regulation and cravings have been issues for you historically. Eat small portions of berries or half of a piece of fruit if you’re not a very active person, or larger portions if you are more active. Starchy foods are best added back in on days when you are more active and specifically in the meal following your activity. Keep portions of starchy foods to a minimum otherwise, and don’t allow them to monopolize your plate if weight loss maintenance is your goal. If simply avoiding cravings is your goal and you feel okay/don’t have them when you add back in some starchy foods, then you can enjoy some root vegetables, tubers like sweet potatoes and squash more frequently. Continue to avoid refined foods including bread, pasta, cereal and other products made from flours and purchased in packages- these are never healthy options.
The bottom line: After The 21-Day Sugar Detox, a sugar-bender is not recommended. The first time I completed The Detox myself, I ate candy the following day when I was hungry (note: this means my blood sugar was already low!). I spiked my blood sugar SO high that when it crashed about an hour or two later, I nearly passed out. Seriously. It was THAT intense. I vowed at that point that I’d never let that happen again. Hopefully you can learn from my mistake, and from the questions outlined above, when choosing how to ease back into your regularly scheduled programming of life and food.