How to hack exclusion diets, according to a nutritionist

How to hack exclusion diets: Cutting out major food groups can cause all kinds of side effects – but these tips could help you avoid pitfalls

  • Fiona Hunter is a nutritionist for Healthspan who has seen scores of patients cut out major food groups
  • Sometimes exclusion diets can be good to lose weight, be more environmentally friendly or treat reactions to certain foods
  • But cutting out major food groups can leave you deficient in key nutrients
  • Here, Hunter explains what to watch out for and how to avoid pitfalls 

Have you ditched dairy or cut out carbs? Gone vegan or simply gone off meat?

If so, you’re one of millions of us who have adopted some sort of exclusion diet in a bid to boost our health, help the planet and/or lose weight.

But experts warned this week that many of us are now becoming deficient in vital nutrients as a result of these diets.

Research published by the Health and Food Supplements Information Service, based on official data, shows many of us now lack key minerals such as magnesium, copper and potassium – vital for bodily functions such as energy and regulating blood pressure.

But what if you feel better – or have lost weight – from cutting out certain foods? Or if you need to omit them from your diet for a medical reason, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease?

Here, nutritionist Fiona Hunter, an ambassador for the wellbeing brand Healthspan, reveals the pros and cons of many popular diet trends – and explains how you can make up any potential vitamin and mineral shortfalls with other foods…


POSITIVES: The non-dairy alternatives all contain less saturated fat than full-fat cow’s milk.

NEGATIVES: Almond, oat and soya milk don’t contain as much calcium as cow’s milk. Many regular shop-bought brands are fortified, but bear in mind that organic options usually aren’t. So if you are going organic, it’s worth considering a calcium supplement. Almond and oat milk also contain less protein than cow’s milk (0.5g per 100ml vs 3.3g protein in full fat cow’s milk) – meaning you may not feel as full after your breakfast cereal, for example. Plant-based milks also contain much less iodine – a vital mineral which is needed for the manufacture of thyroid hormone, which helps control your metabolism. It’s also important during pregnancy because it helps with brain development.

Cutting out dairy, such as cheese, can have many upsides, but also depletes your iodine and calcium levels, Fiona Hunter warns. She explains how to ensure you keep your levels up


Lacking iodine: tiredness, muscle weakness, breast pain, sudden of unexplained weight gain.

Lacking calcium: Insomnia. Some studies suggest that low levels of calcium can cause insomnia; a study published in the European Neurology Journal suggested that calcium deficiency is linked to lower levels of sleep. This is because calcium helps the body use the amino acid tryptophan to manufacture the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy. Broken bones after the age of 50 are another sign you’ve not been getting enough calcium. Lack of calcium in the diet, particularly while the bones are still in their growing phase, which is until your mid 20s, greatly increases the risk of osteoporosis – fragile bones – later in life.


For iodine: Eat fish or shellfish twice a week

For calcium: Choose milk alternatives which are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Other useful sources of calcium include green leafy veg such as kale, almonds and fish such as canned sardines eaten with the bones, tahini and pulses. If you’re concerned, speak to your GP about whether you need a calcium supplement.

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POSITIVES: Better for the planet – plant-based proteins such as beans, pulses, eggs and nuts are more environmentally friendly – and your bank balance (meat is expensive). Cutting out processed meat is generally/always a good thing as foods such as sausages can be high in saturated fat.

NEGATIVES: Red meat is a good source of iron but also contains iron in a form which is more easily absorbed by the body than many other types. Figures show around a quarter of women and nearly half of teenage girls suffer from low iron. Meat is also a good source of zinc, which is needed for the immune system and thyroid to function properly, among other things.

Around a quarter of women and nearly half of teenage girls suffer from low iron, and red meat is a good source of iron that is quickly absorbed into the body


Iron is needed for the manufacture of healthy red blood cells; a deficiency can leave you feeling tired, lethargic, suffering from hair loss and more vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.


If you don’t like/don’t want to eat meat, then choose a breakfast cereal such as bran flakes, which is fortified with iron. Having a small glass of orange juice at the same time will help the body absorb iron from cereal. Eggs and vegetables such as kale also contain iron. To replace the protein you’re not getting from meat, good sources include most nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and products made from them like tofu and tempeh.


POSITIVES: A growing number of studies show that a vegan diet offers several important health benefits including a reduced risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer. Other studies show than vegans are less likely to be overweight and tend to have a lower percentage of body fat, which in turn will reduce the risk of many other diseases.

NEGATIVES: Fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses – which are main ingredients in a vegan diet – are all naturally healthy foods. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all vegan diets are healthy; once these foods are processed and other ingredients like salt, sugar and fat are added, they may still be vegan but they are no longer healthy. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, so you need to make sure you include foods which are fortified with B12 or take a supplement or a spray such as Healthspan Vitamin B12 Spray that contains at least 10 micrograms of B12 each day It’s also important to ensure that a vegan diet contains enough calcium, which is important for healthy strong bones. One nutrient which can be hard to get in a vegan diet is omega-3 – but you can get vegan omega-3 supplements made from seaweed and algae. Also, if you take a vitamin D supplement, make sure it’s vegan – many aren’t.

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, including egg. So you need to make sure you include foods which are fortified with B12 or take a supplement


Many foods mentioned in the vegetarian section above will be suitable. Quorn has a vegan range but not everything in their range is suitable because some of their products contain eggs, so it’s important to check the label. Good vegan sources of calcium include almonds, oranges, kale, red kidney beans, chickpeas and tahini and fortified products, such as dairy free milk alternatives. Although you may read that spinach is good source of calcium, sadly it isn’t. Yes, it contains calcium, but it also contains chemicals called oxalates which bind to the calcium, making it difficult for the body to absorb. But don’t let that stop you eating spinach – it still contains lots of other good stuff.


POSITIVES: Celiac disease, a reaction of the immune system to gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – is the most common reason to follow a gluten-free diet. It affects around one in 100 adults in the UK and US – although experts believe there are millions of people walking around who don’t realize they have it. While people with celiac disease have to cut gluten out of their diet completely, there are some people with a gluten intolerance (which is not the same as celiac disease) who seem to be able to eat small amounts.

NEGATIVES: Avoiding gluten is very fashionable at the moment – and many people cut out it without really needing to, thereby restricting their diet unnecessarily. If you suspect you may have celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten then it’s very important to discuss the problem with your GP before cutting it out of your diet. In fact, it’s essential to keep eating gluten for six weeks before you have a test for celiac disease – otherwise you could get a false negative result on your test. Cutting out gluten can also mean you eat less fiber-rich foods, such as bread, wholegrain pasta and cereal. This not only raises the risk of constipation in the short term, but long-term, can raise the risk of piles (hemorrhoids), painful digestive conditions such as diverticular disease and also heart disease. Also, bear in mind that gluten-free food like pasta and bread is more expensive and often contains higher levels of fat, salt and sugar than regular foods.

Cutting out gluten can also mean you eat less fiber-rich foods, such as bread, wholegrain pasta and cereal. This not only raises the risk of constipation in the short term


Cutting out gluten can be restrictive – especially because gluten is used as ingredient in many foods, including sauces. If you’ve cut out cereals then make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins from other foods. Lack of B vitamins is associated with physical symptoms such as feeling tired and run down, as well as emotional symptoms such as low mood, irritability and anxiety.


To get more fiber without eating gluten, eat beans and pulses, fruit and vegetables, gluten-free oats, brown rice, quinoa


POSITIVES: Protein is more filling and helps you feel fuller for longer, so a higher protein diet can help with weight loss. Also, reducing carbs – especially the high sugar, low fiber variety – is no bad thing and can be useful for people with diabetes and those trying to lose weight. However, severely restricting carbs or cutting them out completely is not a good idea. Instead, focus on good carbs – those that have a low GI and have a good fiber content.

NEGATIVES: Lack of fiber, needed for good digestion. Low fiber diets can cause constipation, which in turn will increase the risk of problems such as piles (hemorrhoids), and painful diverticular disease. 

Low fiber diets, which cut out things like rice, can cause constipation, which in turn will increase the risk of problems such as piles

A low fiber diet can also upset the balance of good bacteria that we have living in our gut. Protein, whatever the source, is expensive. Not only that, but very high protein diets can put extra strain on your kidneys because they are responsible for excreting the waste products once protein is broken down. Therefore, you could be increasing your risk of kidney problems later in life.


If you follow a low carb diet it’s extremely difficult to get enough fiber in your diet. You’ll need to eat plenty of vegetables and consider using a fiber supplement.


POSITIVES: A diet low in saturated fat will help reduce the risk of heart disease. Low fat diets tend to be lower in calories, so better for weight loss.

NEGATIVES: Fat is needed for the absorption of some vitamins in our diet – namely A (needed for healthy eyes and the immune system), D (helps the body absorb calcium, important for blood clotting and a healthy immune system) E (needed for healthy skin and eyes and the immune system) and K (needed for strong bones, blood clotting and wound healing). Therefore, very low-fat diets can make it harder for the body to absorb these vitamins. Not only that, but some fats, such as the omega-3 fats found in oily fish and nuts, are actually good for you because they help to keep the brain, heart and eyes healthy.

Also, fat does help to fill you up, so don’t cut it out completely. Aim to include good fats like nuts, olive or rapeseed oil and avocadoes every day, even if dieting.

Some fats, such as those found in avocados, are actually good for you because they help to keep the brain, heart and eyes healthy. So cutting them out can be risky


Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include osteoporosis (brittle bones) gum disease, muscle pain and constipation. A low intake of omega-3 can increase the risk of heart disease and mental health problems like anxiety and depression.


Some foods, such as oily fish, egg yolks and some fortified foods such as yogurt and margarine contain vitamin D. But diet alone is unlikely to provide a sufficient amount and the body can’t make enough in the winter months, which is why the Government recommends that everyone takes a vitamin D supplement OF 10mcg during autumn and winter. 

I think it should be higher – and personally take 50 mcg a day from September through to end of March. 

To reach your omega-3 quota, the official advice is eat oil rich fish (sardines, fresh or canned salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel) at least once a week, although a new report published this month reveals that levels of omega-3 in farmed salmon have fallen by 50 percent in the last 10 years so experts suggest that is you choose farmed salmon you should aim for 2 portions an week. 

If you hate fish, a supplement can help bridge the gap and I would recommend Healthspan Super Strength Omega 3, 1200mg.

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