Every year seems to bring a new diet fad, but could the autoimmune eating protocol make sense? Here’s what you need to know about eating for gut health.
Did you know that autoimmune disease affects more Black women than any other gender/race group? This is because they have stronger immune systems. Yes, you read that right.
Simply put, autoimmune disease is an over-response to an event in the body. In 2016, a study found that the immune systems of people of African descent are actually stronger than any other ethnicity. While this is great news for flu season, it’s not so great when a person has an autoimmune disease. From a pathological viewpoint, women are significantly more likely to develop an autoimmune disease.
You might have heard about the autoimmune protocol diet, which is a stricter version of the paleo diet, promising to end suffering for those struggling with autoimmune disorders and food intolerance. But is it actually a substantial diet to consider? Let us break it down for you.
Understanding the Autoimmune Protocol Diet (AIP)
The more we learn about the digestive system and nutrition, the more we seem to learn about its vital role in every body’s process. This philosophy is at the core of the AIP, which is a nutrition-based management plan for managing autoimmune disorders.
The idea behind the diet is to reduce inflammation in the body by eliminating foods that cause inflammation. Followers of the diet believe that a “leaky gut” or small holes in the intestinal tract, can cause some foods to leak into the body, triggering an autoimmune response in the body.
By slowly eliminating inflammatory foods for a given period of time, advocates of this nutritional regimen believe that they can give their bodies the space it needs to heal the holes.
After the healing process is complete, participants slowly start to reintroduce “normal” foods into their life. But only one food type at a time. Because the second part of this food philosophy is identifying possible foods that your body is intolerant to.
If a person’s autoimmune symptoms return after they reintroduce a particular food into their diet, they can specifically identify which foods are causing the issue and can avoid them.
This and similar diets are widely used by nutritionists and naturopaths to help identify food intolerances. Food intolerances are incredibly difficult to identify because unlike a food allergy, there isn’t a test that can provide a black-and-white answer.
What You Can and Can’t Eat on the AIP
The AIP is basically a stricter version of the Paleo diet, it highlights foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The diet is intended to be healthy, but people often don’t follow the very specific guidelines.
The diet requires a person to ear organ meats or “offal” at least five times every week, and wild-caught fish or shellfish at least three times every week. It also asks for eight or more servings of a variety of anti-inflammatory veggies every day, ranging from kale to watercress, sweet potatoes, squash, onions, and mushrooms.
This diet also allows for “quality meats” like humanely treated beef and poultry. Oils like avocado and coconut are also allowed, in addition to kefir, coconut-based foods, bone broth, fermented foods. High-fiber and phytonutrient fruits are encouraged, however, the diet asks participants to keep fructose levels between 10 and 40 grams every day.
Now here’s what you can’t eat.
It’s no surprise that refined and processed foods and alcohol must be removed on this diet. Items like dairy, eggs, and NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)also make sense.
Those familiar with anti-inflammatory foods won’t be surprised to see that Nightshades like potatoes (except sweet potatoes) and tomatoes also need to be removed from the diet.
However, the diet also asks for the removal of all grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, even whole nutrient-rich ones. Which makes this diet not necessarily the “best” option for trying to lead a healthy diet. The restrictions also don’t make it very sustainable.
To fully do the AIP diet, salt, fructose, high-glycemic foods, caffeine, and saturated fat levels must all also be tracked. This can make the diet difficult to maintain over a long period of time, however, it’s a great way for people to start getting a realistic idea of the amounts of these items they are actually consuming.
Is There Any Scientific Research About the AIP?
There is scientific evidence that links gut health and autoimmune disease. Studies show that autoimmune diseases can cause the microbiome of the gut to become unbalanced, the medical term for this is dysbiosis.
When the body is in a state of dysbiosis, the lining of the intestines can weaken, and even become “leaky.” This paves the way for bacteria to enter the digestive system, which triggers the body’s immune system. This response in the body can cause more harm than good.
It’s believed that factors like stress, lack of sleep, medications and environmental contagions can also trigger an imbalance in the body’s microbiome. This is where what you eat comes into play.
If a person is intolerant or sensitive to certain foods, it can cause further harm to the gut barrier.
While this basic theory is scientifically supported, it doesn’t directly link the specific parameters of the AIP diet to being effective. A person can have an intolerance or sensitivity to any type of food, even the ones included in this diet.
If you actually have an autoimmune disease, nutrition can definitely play a role in how bad or nonexistent your symptoms are. But again, you don’t need to specifically follow the AIP diet to lead a nutrient-dense, healthy food lifestyle that minimizes your symptoms.
Is the AIP Diet Really Healthy?
Sticking to a nutrient-dense diet that removes processed “fake” foods is something that is healthy for anyone. Processed foods of any kind cause an array of health problems for people, can shorten lives and ultimately cause quicker deaths.
Across the board, also eliminating artificial sweeteners and sodas containing phenylalanine, aspartame and processed sugar is something that is promoted in any diet and is something anyone who wants to be healthy should do.
The gradual elimination and reintroduction method of this diet is a smart approach for anyone who is having digestive issues or believes their body is reacting negatively to specific foods. Sufferers of Crohn’s Disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease have used this style of health tracking to pinpoint the foods causing their health issues.
However, the diet has some major contradictions when it comes to its anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense philosophies.
First, the diet includes animal fats, which are one of the biggest causes of inflammation in the body. While the AIP does eliminate dairy, eggs and processed meats, it also overlooks the fact that meats cooked at high temperatures are a leading cause of inflammation.
The second issue with this diet is that while it promotes nutrient-dense foods, it also eliminates many. Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and peas are packed with essential vitamins, while whole grains like quinoa and oats are also highly nutritious. Flax and chia seeds, pepitas and walnuts are just some of the many nuts that offer a wide range of health benefits.
While there are reports that some people stick to the AIP diet for life, it’s more widely accepted as a temporary diet. It’s simply not sustainable for most people to stick to for a prolonged period of time.
When the AIP is approached as a tool for problem-solving, the process of the diet, not necessarily its menu, can be incredibly beneficial.
But, this diet should not be used as a crash diet to lose a few pounds, or as a substitute for medical advice. If you are medically diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder, it doesn’t hurt to avoid anti-inflammatory foods, however, you might want to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet, versus this one.
If you think you have an ant-inflammatory disease but have not been diagnosed, the only way to actually know is through a blood or urine test.
Is the AIP Right for People of Color?
Studies show that African Americans are at higher risk of forming lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, 1 diabetes, thyroiditis, and multiple sclerosis, which are all autoimmune diseases. Little is known about the clear genetic link between people of color and their susceptibility to autoimmune disease.
Some of the listed autoimmune diseases can develop into life-threatening issues, so it’s important, especially for people of color, to go to the doctor and have blood work done if they think they are experiencing symptoms of autoimmune disease.
Auto-immune diseases are especially dominant in women, with nine out of 10 sufferers being female. Black women who are showing symptoms of inflammation and digestive imbalance should be especially cautious.
When it comes to food intolerances, it was found that black children are twice as likely to suffer from food sensitivities and allergies. The cause of this is unknown, and it’s, unfortunately, an issue that isn’t discussed more publicly.
A diet rich in nutritious foods and that limits processed foods is essential for anyone who wants to live a healthier lifestyle. Black families can especially benefit from making lifestyle changes that promote cleaner eating and more whole foods.
If you eat a lot of animal by-products and processed foods, the AIP can work as a good starting place for a healthier lifestyle. It is especially beneficial for those who think they might be suffering from food intolerance. The fact that the AIP takes eliminating foods one step at a time can make change easier.
Another benefit to this diet is that it can help you realize issues you may have gotten so used to, that you’re oblivious to. You might find that after eliminating, then reintroducing foods, what foods you commonly ate before, now make you feel sick.
Just know that this is only one, of many routes you can take on the path to better health.
Choosing The Right Diet
So many Americans are stuck in a vicious cycle of binge eating and crash dieting. Without the right mindset, any diet or new fitness plan won’t last.
If you need to make a change, whether it be for health reasons or to feel better about yourself, first, commit to a lifestyle change. Don’t fall victim to “quick fixes,” because when it comes to health, there aren’t any.
In order to make a lifestyle change that lasts, you’ve got to be real with yourself. If you’re a parent of three children who works full-time, know that you’re not going to have the time for a high maintenance nutritional plan or to prepare three gourmet meals every day.
For you, dinner might look like meal-prepped beans, rice, and vegetables, and breakfast might be a bowl of oatmeal with fruit. These aren’t the most exciting or mouth-watering dishes out there, but if you’re serious about your health, they are choices that (eventually) won’t be hard to make.
Loving your body and filling yourself with foods and energy that serves you, is not depriving yourself—it’s igniting yourself.
Making a lifestyle change means you’re in it for the long haul. It doesn’t mean that in three months you can go back to eating McDonald’s every day for lunch. A lifestyle change means your quitting bad habits and choosing to be that higher version of yourself.
So is the autoimmune protocol diet the answer? Maybe for you, it is, or maybe it’s not. Consult your physician and do what’s right for you.
Need help on your journey to better self-care? We’ve got you covered!