Let’s talk food. Specifically, let’s talk Autoimmune Protocol food.
An Autoimmune Disease Diagnosis
I recently shared my Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis diagnosis, and what I’m doing about it. My first line of defense was supplements to combat my body’s inflammation. Next, while I determine my route for thyroid hormone supplementation, I’m working to heal my gut and immune system through an elimination diet called the Autoimmune Protocol.
The Autoimmune Protocol
The Autoimmune Protocol, or AIP, is a refined version of the Paleo diet that focuses on nutrient density and places stricter requirements on what foods you should and should not eat, at least temporarily. Medical biophysicist Sarah Ballantyne created this protocol and dedicates her career to understanding autoimmune disease and promoting healing through diet and lifestyle changes.
Under AIP, foods can be broken down into two groups: those that promote health and those that undermine it. Some foods are pretty self-explanatory: most vegetables, seafood, and grass-fed organ meats are health-promoting, while gluten-containing grains, peanuts, and soy products are health-undermining. Other foods are a little tougher to categorize, such as nightshades, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
The theory behind the Autoimmune Protocol is twofold: by removing all foods that may contribute to inflammation and gut irritation, you promote healing and immune system regulation through nourishing, nutrient-dense foods. Autoimmune diseases are typically linked to four main contributors: nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, poor gut health, hormone imbalances, and an immune system gone rogue. The Autoimmune Protocol removes all foods that may contribute to these triggers and gives your body a reprieve of sorts. Once your symptoms subside, whatever that looks like for you, you can reintroduce foods one at a time and see what, if any, trigger your symptoms.
What to Eat – and What Not to Eat
The Autoimmune Protocol uses the general Paleo diet as a template and builds upon it, excluding all foods that may activate the immune system or irritate the gut. These foods include:
- Refined and processed sugars and oils
- Seeds, including cocoa, coffee, and seed-based spices (Boohiss)
- Nightshades: white potatoes (but not sweet potatoes!), tomatoes, eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, cayenne, red pepper, tomatillos, goji berries, and spices derived from peppers, such as paprika
- NSAIDS (sorry, Advil)
- Non-nutritive sweeteners (i.e. stevia)
- Emulsifiers, thickeners, and other food additives, such as carrageenan in some almond milks and guar gum in some coconut milk products
So what can you eat?
- All the vegetables! (minus the nightshades): it’s recommended to eat 8-14 cups of veggies per day
- Fruit, but only 1-3 servings a day to limit fructose intake (unless you’re running an ultramarathon, then you eat all the dried blueberries)
- Quality meats: grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild meat as much as possible
- Organ meat and offal (I’m still a little afraid of this one)
- Herbs and spices
- Good, yummy fats: avocado, grass-fed animal fats, fatty fish, olive, avocado, coconut, and palm oils
- Probiotic/fermented foods
- Glycine-rich foods: such as collagen peptides, bone broth, and that pesky organ meat
- Natural sugars, such as maple syrup (thank goodness), honey, and blackstrap molasses (but in limited quantities)
Autoimmune Protocol and Eating Disorder Recovery
This is a little daunting, especially for someone who has a history of disordered behaviors around food. I learned about AIP months ago, when I was first diagnosed with Hashi’s, but I pushed it aside. It sounded too hard and too restrictive, and I was finally to a place where I could go out to eat without dragging guilt, shame, and fear with me. I’ve been gluten-free for seven years (years of GI distress led to a gluten-intolerance diagnosis long ago), but removing everything else (or so I thought) was too much. My eating disorder recovery process was too raw and vulnerable.
But the Autoimmune Protocol planted itself in the back of my mind. In the last month, AIP kept me awake at night, tossing and turning with indecision. I wanted to try it, to give it a fair shot and address some GI issues I’d been having (particularly around tomatoes, bell peppers, chickpeas, and lentils – see a trend?), but I was scared. Terrified. What if this triggered more restriction? What if this awakened a part of me – the disordered, restrictive, controlling part – that I try to keep at bay on a daily basis?
But, what if it didn’t? What if, like the 1,200 scientific studies denote, the Autoimmune Protocol does promote healing and alleviate my symptoms? What if I can address the root cause of my autoimmune disease and put it into remission? What if eating disorder recovery and autoimmune disease healing are not mutually exclusive?
So, I started the protocol. I hid all of my gluten-free flours and pastas, my lentils and grains, even the chocolate and hard ciders in the hardest-to-reach pantry in my kitchen. My many jars of nut butters and seeds are in a bag in the corner of my fridge. I brought all of my random candies and jars of peanut butter to community food table at work. I donated my tomatoes and peppers to friends. I started the Autoimmune Protocol.
Autoimmune Protocol: A Process
It took three days to not accidentally eat something I wasn’t supposed to (sorry pea milk and Vega protein powder). On day 3, I threw a fit over a plate of uneaten kimchi (it had chili in it). On day 4, I almost cried over (a lack of) pancakes. On day 5 I realized it’d been four days since I had crippling fatigue or extreme mood swings. On day 6 I craved meat and avocado for breakfast and broke through a weeks-long plateau at the climbing gym. It wasn’t until day 7 that I thought I could maybe have a shot at doing this – and then on day 8 I nearly gave up, again.
It has been work. I rarely cooked meat before this (save for eggs), and making sure I have enough food to fuel my adventures and training is no easy feat, with or without the Autoimmune Protocol. While I am learning how to not overcook every animal product I touch, I’ve also had some major culinary successes, including a Valentine’s Day dinner of mint lamb burgers and sweet potato fries, and crowd-pleasing guacamole and plantain chips at my first AIP-era social outing.
I’m figuring out how to meal plan while allowing myself to continue honing my ability to decipher what my body craves and eat intuitively, an important skill to practice in my eating disorder recovery. I’m turning to podcasts and websites and books on healing and the Autoimmune Protocol, including my current favorite Mickey Trescott’s book The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook and Trescott and Angie Alt’s book The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook.
Tracking the Elimination Phase
I’m committing to at least 30 days in the elimination phase of the Autoimmune Protocol and am keeping a journal of daily symptoms and notes on things such as training, energy levels, my menstrual cycle, and anxiety. I am also setting daily and weekly goals as I embark on my healing. AIP isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about lifestyle, including adequate rest, addressing adrenal fatigue, and stress management.
In just a few days on the protocol, I am already discovering what foods leave me feeling good (avocado, squash, all sautéed greens) and those that leave me feeling not so great (more than one serving of broccoli, yams, and dates). I’m learning.
I’m also unpacking my emotional ties and relationship with food and eating – and how I can heal and mend this as well as my gut and immune system. Food has so much emotional weight and power – and I’ve found that in this process of resetting my diet, even temporarily, I am also resetting my relationship with food, mealtimes, and the act of eating. Under the Autoimmune Protocol, food is nourishment. It is not a source of guilt or shame, nor is it even a source of a tummy ache (usually). It is an opportunity to provide my body with what it needs, and only that. That is pretty powerful.
This week is my second full week on the Protocol, and my first with an actual plan. This is also the week I race a 50K, on an AIP compliant diet. We’ll see how this goes.
This week’s goals in healing and nourishing:
- Prepare more than enough food for my race Saturday, including dried blueberries, maple syrup, roasted sweet potatoes (not the orange kind!), and some post-race bone broth.
- Set a bedtime alarm of 9 pm and only hit snooze once (even if Lindsey Vonn is skiing).
- Pack real lunches for work each day. And accept that no, I cannot make this up on the fly like I used to.
- Find out of the box sources of grass-fed, pasture-raised meat within my budget.
Let’s raise our mugs of bone broth to healing.