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Should you ‘reduce’ or ‘eliminate’ certain foods altogether from your diet?

This is the age-old question…

Do we eliminate ‘something bad’ altogether?   Go cold turkey. Get rid of something 100%…

Or do we cut that ‘bad thing’ out gradually? Reducing the amount every day just a little bit until it goes away altogether?

A lot of people argue that the slow gradual process is the more ‘reasonable’ approach. It’s less extreme. It is easier on your body…and your mind. Intuitively, it feels more ‘gentle’.

However, having watched dozens—hundreds—of people make the transition to plant-based eating (and having traveled that same road myself), I’m less sure. What I have witnessed first- hand is that the reduction approach may very well lead to ongoing struggle and disappointment while the elimination of certain difficult food categories (such as cheese or oil) may be the best route to success.

Let’s first look at the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of elimination versus reduction.


The Positive Points…

The Reduction approach is more gradual; you shift your habits slowly and steadily. ‘Reducing’ a bad eating habit (rather than stopping cold turkey) just feels easier to achieve. But the reduction route nevertheless has many drawbacks…

The Negative Points…

The ‘reduction’ method is difficult because:

  1. It is not quantifiable: How do you determine the ‘right’ amount of reduction in the first place? For example, the American Heart Association sets an upper intake limit of 5% to 6% of total daily calories from saturated fat. How many people know what that really means in practical terms or how to calculate it? If I told you that you needed to reduce your consumption of dairy or oil by 20% or 80%, would you know concretely how to apply that to your day-to-day eating habits? 80% might mean something altogether different to you than it does to me. It’s difficult to quantify in a way that’s helpful and easy to follow. Just like the term “moderation”, the term “reduction” is just too vague to be followed efficiently.
  2. It is difficult to track: How exactly do you track your dairy or oil consumption—particularly when you are eating out or eating packaged foods? Very few of us eat only what we cook at home. Unless we keep a daily food journal and write down every single thing we eat, most of us totally underestimate how much we eat in any given category.
  3. By still eating ‘a little bit’, we keep our cravings alive: It is clear that when we reduce (rather than eliminate) a certain food, we are effectively keeping the image of that food alive in our minds. Our minds work through imagery; it is simply harder to get rid of the desire of our food if we keep eating a ‘little bit of it.’ ‘Feeding’ our cravings through imagery can be a slippery slope. It is easy to fall back into old habits—and old consumption patterns. Before long, you might be back where you started.

And what are the pros and cons of elimination?


  1. Removes the guesswork: It’s simple. Clear. Easy to track. With elimination—you don’t have to worry about whether you need to reduce 10% or 35% or 70%–the answer is you eliminate 100%.   A 100% dairy free day means what it says—in that one 24 hour period you eliminate all dairy.   There is no guesswork or doubt what is considered ‘acceptable’.
  2. Reduces temptation: Another huge advantage to the elimination approach relates to the dynamic of cravings. When you keep eating ‘just a little bit’ of a food category, you essentially keep the memory—and image—of the food alive. When you get rid of that food category altogether, the memory of the food fades away—along with the temptation.
  3. Gets you results more quickly. And easier: Admittedly removing one category completely—100%–can at the outset appear more extreme. (Not to mention harder!)  In reality, taking the leap into the ‘deep end’ is actually the easiest approach. Given the dynamics of cravings, elimination will actually get you the success you want much more quickly than reduction.

Like a Band-Aid, sometimes it’s just easier to pull it off quickly rather than endure the slow torture of ripping it off gradually.

I’m living proof of how elimination can work.

When I eliminated dairy, I couldn’t think of it as something I would do for the rest of my life. In fact, I knew I couldn’t let something I loved so much out of my diet forever. So I told myself a little lie (though at the time I didn’t know that) – I promised to do it for 6 months, then after that period of time I would go back to eating my ice cream, Gruyere cheese and pizza.

What happened next really surprised me. After not having a single morsel of dairy for six months, I realized I didn’t miss or want it anymore, so I decided to keep it going.

The images of dairy foods were clearly out of my mind after that 6-month elimination, and that’s probably one of the reasons I’m still dairy-free. If I had tried to reduce my consumption, I might be eating dairy to this day. Or it might have taken me 5 or 10 years to accomplish something I got done in 6 months!

Because I succeeded so quickly, I was able to move forward and stack on other changes over the past few years.

One Huge Caveat-Don’t Eliminate Everything All at Once

So while I’m a fan of elimination, I don’t suggest that you change everything all at once. Instead, I propose applying the elimination method in steps–eliminating just ONE category of food at a time.  As I explained in my 80/20 article just by changing one part of your diet can achieve massive results.

For example, why not start by eliminating one category like dairy first? Or oil? Or even commit to making one meal like breakfast 100% plant-based? Spend a few weeks or months getting used to how that feels. And once you see the success in that one area, you can then move onto the next—motivated by your success in the first category. While the ultimate goal will be to follow a 100% plant-based diet, you can get to that goal gradually by changing one of your eating habits at a time. As you move forward, you will ‘stack’ each new habit on top of each other until you arrive at your final destination.

In some ways, letting go of unhealthful food habits is like letting go of anything unhealthful in our lives—from jobs to relationships or situations that don’t nourish us. Even though those old eating habits (relationships or jobs) make us feel ‘safe’ in the short-term, in the long run they are not getting us where we want to go.

And sometimes the best (and easiest!) way to get rid of those old habits is to simply turn our back on them completely. Take the leap. Move on. It is much harder to do that when you are still involved with that negative influence—even if it is just a ‘little’ bit. Better to move on and endorse new patterns that give you the healthful eating habits—and life—you both want and deserve.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.