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The elemental diet: What it’s like to live on “nothing” for two months

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Image: Nicholas Lamas / EyeEm (Getty Images)

In my late twenties, I once ate nothing but formula for eight weeks. By choice.

Some background: I have several food allergies and sensitivities that, depending on the food, can range from abdominal pain, itchy throat, asthma, and hives, to (in the most severe bouts) anaphylaxis. Allergic reactions are one of several effects caused by a disease that creates too many white blood cells in my body. It’s a nascent and pretty rare disorder, so my treatment plan has evolved throughout the course of my life, adapting as the medical community threw darts to see if anything could vanquish the disease.

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One of those darts was an elemental diet. This is different from the more common elimination diet, where you remove all foods that are common allergens from your diet for a few months, then reintroduce said foods one by one to see which might prompt any issues. I’d done an elimination diet before, and it did more harm than good: after I reintroduced foods back into my diet, my body moved into a hyperreactive state, culminating in a few trips to the hospital.

If an elimination diet is deleting a paragraph, the elemental diet is deleting the document. Having tried a host of medicines both prescribed and over-the-counter, as well as steering clear of certain foods altogether, there were few options left to see if the disease could fully abet. I signed on to the elemental diet with a why-the-hell-not attitude. I had nobody else to take care of besides myself at the time, and the Wisconsin in me meant I didn’t mind severely inconveniencing myself for the sake of, in my mind, a potential greater good.

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It started with a “reset” period of eight weeks. At the beginning and the end, you get a camera stuck down your throat to see if things look better. For the first eight weeks, I could consume nothing but a vanilla-flavored hypoallergenic baby formula. I am on the height and weight curve for a male adult, so I consumed a whole can a day, typically mixed with the coldest water available to me. Since this was a medically authorized endeavor, insurance covered most of the formula, for which I’m still thankful. That shit was expensive.

Scheduling the diet was a hurdle in itself. Considering the duration of the exercise, and accounting for any personal and family milestones, I picked early summer to start, as it gave me enough time to, optimistically, eat “normal food” going into fall and the holidays. The first three days were a challenge, especially as a coffee drinker breaking the caffeine headache. Once that passed, I felt pretty great. The hunger pangs were absent, because I was getting a full day’s worth of calories and nutrients, just in a different form. After a while, the formula started to taste good too (pretty much a watery vanilla milkshake), but in the way that your grandma’s Swiss steak tastes good: familiar, not appetizing.

The biggest challenge actually had to do with logistics. As a traveling consultant at the time, having meals on hand was key—not only the formulae, but also a shaking mechanism to mix it. Business flights proved interesting, especially explaining to TSA folks that all that white powder in my carry-on was for a medical diet. I always had to keep something on hand to rinse and clean the shakers for fear of lingering remnants from an earlier batch.

It was nice to not give any thought whatsoever to what I’d eat each day. There were no laboring well-what-do-you-want-to-do-for-dinner conversations with my then girlfriend, nor any shopping trips beyond the weekly delivery from the medical supply store.

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After the eight-week formula-only phase, the doctor’s camera showed full remission. This meant I could systematically add one food back in at a time, every four to five days, monitoring for any symptoms and discomfort. I wasn’t done with the milkshakes, though—I continued on formula to ensure I’d still get a full nutritional load for the day. I started with the plainest of the plain, rice and potatoes, and worked my way up to fruits, vegetables, and eventually proteins. Every six to eight weeks there would be another scope with the camera. This whole phase took about six months.

This was the hardest part of the endeavor, because once I was eating solids again, the temptation to consume a greater variety of food was harder than knowing that food of any kind was off-limits. Restaurants proved challenging, asking the server if they had “plain rice” or a baked potato and trying not to consider the ramifications of any cross-contamination.

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What emerged during this time, and what I can recall vividly, was an appreciation for ingredients that had just never existed before. When a tomato’s only one of four things you can eat, you seek out good tomatoes. The ordeal really sparked my affection for farmers’ markets. Prior to this I was not one who gave much thought to where my food came from, or how it got here.

Eventually I got to a point where enough foods were added back in and i was feeling fine. But then the cells re-emerged. That was not a fun call to receive. To have gone through several months of inconvenience and feel better, only to find out that you A) were about to potentially feel a whole lot worse and B) couldn’t pinpoint the cause, was hard to take. There was plenty of guilt on my end: Was I so undisciplined that I couldn’t trace it back to one food? Had I been too cavalier with eating food I didn’t source myself?

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So there was a choice. Door one was stay on formula in perpetuity, feel better, spend the cost of a new iPhone on thin milkshakes every month, and live a vanilla life free of concern. Door two was to self-manage, experience the sublimity of a sungold tomato, hash browns, fresh blueberries, or barbecued chicken, and navigate the symptoms in the hope that, someday, there would be a dart that scored a bullseye.

I chose door two without much of a contest. There have been a few scary encounters along the way, and there is a fractional element of “could this kill me?” every time I eat something of questionable origin. But I live to tell this experience, and I know many other food allergy sufferers have it a lot worse than I do.

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I get questions from acquaintances on why I write about food. The reason food holds the place in my imagination that it does is because I went without it, albeit voluntarily, and can’t fathom life without it after that experience. There’s a non-zero chance that at some point the elemental diet could be mandatory. If that’s the case then I have no regrets. I’d like to squeeze in as much good (and less good!) food as my body can handle, because I know what the alternative is.

Nick Leggin is a technology professional, writer, potato chip enthusiast, and former game show contestant.

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DISCUSSION

aurorafirestorm
AuroraFirestorm (Alcoraiden)

You are actually allergic to food. That’s terrifying.

I feel like as someone who has tried meal replacements, it was shitty, because I never felt like I had enough food volume to be satisfied. How’d you do it with the shakes?