What is the best diet for autoimmune?Sep 19, 2022
If you're tired of endless searching of articles about what is the best diet for autoimmune, let me help you.
This article goes deep and explains the difference between what I have found to be the most supportive nutrition plans for autoimmune based on science and what works best for my private and membership clients, depending on where they are on the autoimmune spectrum, health history, symptoms and what they can commit to with the least amount of stress.
Those nutritional plans are the Anti-inflammatory diet, Paleo and The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). There are others I use for troubleshooting in certain cases (like parasite, low FODMAP and low histamine), but these three are great starting points.
These plans work when you include key principles of the Autoimmune Nutrition Triad and emphasize nutrient dense (or high value) foods to feed energy metabolism, immune resilience and digestive function for results versus wasting time and energy on becoming hyper focused on a long list of foods to avoid. That is a recipe for failure every time.
Before I get into nutrient dense nutrition plans for autoimmune, here are some quick facts first so you have a bit of an understanding about autoimmune and the environment in which a disease can present itself:
With an autoimmune, the body develops antibodies that identify not only foreign invaders, but also autoantibodies that “attack” the body’s own tissues/proteins.
You can have an autoimmune anywhere in the body.
There are more than 100 autoimmune disease.
There is no cure for autoimmune; however, symptoms can go “quiet” – some refer to this as remission.
Estimates show that almost 20% of the population has an autoimmune and diagnosis is increasing by 17% a year.
It can take several years to diagnosis an autoimmune, and often symptoms are dismissed as other possible factors (hormones, IBS, virus, etc.).
Having one autoimmune increases your risk for developing another and there are some common co-diagnoses:
- Skin - gut - bone/joint (trifecta of rheumatic conditions)
- Type 1 Diabetes and celiac
- Hashimoto's and celiac
- Insulin resistance with RA
- PCOS, eczema with autoimmune
There is no medical speciality devoted to general or umbrella autoimmune research and treatment with the exception of Internists or some progressive medical doctors. For example, rheumatology looks at only rheumatic disease, endocrinology only looks at hormonal dysfunction, etc. Research funds are also splintered among each lane, which may explain why research advancements are slow.
From an integrative perspective, genetics are only one reason why a person will develop an autoimmune. Genetics “load the gun,” so to speak. However, a person can have a gene or genetic mutation and not develop an autoimmune.
Something needs to pull the trigger.
The "trigger" is typically a combination of influencing factors versus one concrete cause: additional genetic considerations, environmental factors, lifestyle or diet. The combination that lights the inflammatory fire is different for each person.
This is good news! You can’t change your genetic code, but you can address the nutritional, digestive, lifestyle and environmental imbalances, which means ... You have the ability to influence triggers of a disease that is controlling your body and quality of life.
So let's start with nutrition. There are SO. MANY. DIETS and opinions. It's confusing. What works and what doesn’t work? What’s best for your body, disease and equally important .... What’s practical for you and your family so you can stick with it for the long term?
Your health history
Your diagnosis (or diagnoses and co-conditions)
Your current symptoms (aches, pains, digestive symptoms, headaches, hormones, bowel movements, suspected or confirmed foods sensitivities)
What you've tried before that's worked (or not worked)?
Your health goals - what do you want to see change in the next 3 - 6 months?
Are you cooking for just yourself or an entire family?
Likes/dislikes - if you refuse to eat certain foods, then we need to adjust for that
Time to cook
What do you have the bandwidth to commit to for 3 - 6 months?
That's a lot of customization. If you're new to my community, I recommend you start by simply understanding your options. Then, you can decide what makes most sense as a first step and what sort of support you need to commit to the process so you can actually see some sustainable results.
To follow is a very simple overview of three evidence-based nutritional approaches that I use for autoimmune, followed by key considerations for restoring energy, improving immune regulation and the importance of digestive function.
You'll note that keto or vegetarian are not included and that's because (from my perspective), they're missing some core ingredients required to restore immune health and digestive wellness. I follow the science and what gets the best results for my clients and members inside The Integrative Autoimmune Network.
This is what I see works best.
An Anti-Inflammatory Diet For Autoimmune
The definition of an “anti-inflammatory” diet is very broad. There are various “anti-inflammatory” diets and trends (DASH, macrobiotic, Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan). With my clients, I use the Itis framework as I've found it has the research behind it for rheumatic conditions, and it incorporates the key principles of the Mediterranean Diet, which most doctors are in support of. It's also family friendly which makes a difference when you're cooking for more than one.
For my clients, an anti-inflammatory diet looks like this:
Emphasize whole foods. Food should look as close to nature as nature intended (e.g., minimal processing, unrefined … for example, bread vs. brown rice).
Consume large quantities of produce (half your plate is vegetable and fruit). Produce contains important vitamins/minerals and fibre. Fibre is essential for removing toxins, metabolic waste and excess hormones, and balancing blood sugar.
Healthy fats help support the nervous and cardiovascular systems by means of their Omega 3 content. All cells in your body have a lipid (fat) membrane. Your brain is made of fat. The right type of fat is an essential dietary requirement for good cellular health.
Quality animal protein provides key amino acids for repair and growth.
Limit gluten and grains. Gluten is being increasingly associated with autoimmune and a high portion of people with an autoimmune disease have non-celiac sensitivity. Wheat is plentiful in the Mediterranean and Vegetarian diets, yet my clients find it triggers their joint/muscle/digestive flares as well as brain fog.
Nightshade aware. Many people with autoimmune have a hard time digesting nightshades, which are plentiful in a standard Mediterranean or vegetarian diet
Natural sugar (fruit, honey, maple syrup) provides nutritional value. Refined sugar has zero nutritional value and is a known contributor to inflammation as it places additional stress on the hormone system.
Chose water as your primary beverage. When you are dehydrated, you place additional stress on your body and that can amplify symptoms of inflammation.
Relax and stress less while eating. Chew your food. This helps increase the digestibility of your meal.
For many of my clients and families I work with, this is a good start. That's because they've been eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) and this will be a huge change from their current habits, or they are afraid to change their nutrition plan because they are exhausted, their family isn't on board, or their doctor has advised small changes.
I give them the tools, strategies and coaching to make this plan as simple as possible, so they can focus on adding in nutrient dense foods to help improve their energy and outlook. THEN (if necessary), we start to make some next-level moves to support longer term health. But we need to start somewhere and often times, this is it.
Beyond anti-inflammatory ...
Some clients require next-level nutrition plans to help them reduce symptoms of pain, digestive flares, brain fog and co-conditions like insulin resistance. This is when I turn to Paleo and the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). I’m lucky that I have special training in these protocols because I find my clients need additional support to successfully follow these approaches, ensuring they are combining their macros in the right way to maximize their results.
You see, success depends on how you build an autoimmune plate and combine your foods and not merely avoiding foods or following a recipe that looks similar to what you're already eating. This is because those with autoimmune are typically operating in high-stress “survival” mode. Often times they are struggling with low energy, brain fog, inflammation and GI upset these symptoms can over ride the best intentions when life pulls you in a million directions (as it can).
This is also true for my clients who are already working with a FMD, ND or holistic doctor and are having a hard time following the recommendations provided. Having a customized plan is incredibly helpful so you can actually sustain habits beyond 30 days.
The Paleo Diet For Autoimmune
Many people assume the Paleo diet is heavy on meat, a weight loss program or a fad diet (the Whole 30 popularized this notion). Let's clear this up.
When followed correctly, Paleo is predominantly plant based and can help reduce and manage symptoms of an autoimmune disease. It is also linked to improved health associated with blood sugar management, glucose tolerance and heart disease. This is really important as imbalanced blood sugar is a common co-condition with many rheumatic and autoimmune conditions. Paleo also helps restore gut health and is the framework most professionals use during a parasite, candida or bacterial "cleanse" to reduce added sugars and starches.
Scientist, Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. defines Paleo:
“The Paleo diet is a nutrient-dense whole foods diet based on eating a variety of quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. It improves health by providing balanced and complete nutrition while avoiding most processed and refined foods and empty calories.”
I find my clients who follow Paleo typically have good success and learn to live better with their disease. This is because Paleo is a sustainable diet, meaning you can easily follow it for a long period of time. You can bake with easy-to-find, grain-free flours and even food manufacturers are offering more Paleo-friendly options in the marketplace from breads to crackers to bars to snacks.
The Paleo Diet
Includes: quality animal protein, healthy fats, vegetables (including sea vegetables), fruit, nuts, seeds, natural sugar
Excludes: grains, dairy, legumes, refined sugar, processed oils and food chemicals
While there are lots of resources on Paleo for adults, few exist for to help busy women with families at home, or to support autoimmune kids and teens. Believe me, I looked for myself and my daughter and this is one of the reasons why I created my E-Guide The RA Family Kitchen which is designed to help clients slowly and steadily implement change at home so they’re not making separate meals.
The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)
The Autoimmune Protocol (abbreviate to AIP) is another nutrition plan with science backing its success. It has an even stronger focus on nutrient density to support immune regulation. For this reason, it eliminates more food triggers than Paleo and strongly emphasizes a certain combination of protein, produce and fat to help feed and fuel immune resilience and digestive wellness.
Many people won’t consider AIP because they think it’s too difficult or restrictive. Rest assured … it’s not and it’s 100% doable. In fact, I did a modified version of this with my child when she was first diagnosed and it helped her turn her condition around quite quickly. This is the reason WHY I became an AIP Certified Coach, participate in the AIP Summits, and have maintained my designation for the past 3 years.
There is also medical support backing the efficacy of AIP for Hashimoto’s, Crohn’s/Colitis and why I often will use this plan for my clients with an IBD, Hashimoto's or MS (it's similar to the Wahl's protocol)
In a medical study of 15 people with an IBD (Crohn’s/Colitis), 79% went into remission after following AIP for only 6 weeks.
Another medical study of 17 women with Hashimoto’s showed incredible results after only 12 weeks of AIP – reduction in CRP markers, reduced white blood cell count, improved nutritional status and overall symptom reduction.
AIP is meant to be temporary – 30 to 90 days only, with the intention of adding foods in so you can identify what works best for your body. It's the ultimate elimination diet for autoimmune (click here to read more about the pros/cons of elimination diets) and can help you quickly reduce inflammation at home and identify your unique food triggers.
Once symptoms have reduced, you add foods back into your diet so you can follow a more balanced nutritional plan. The reintroduction phase allows you to identify what foods trigger a response that is unique to you, your situation and your autoimmune. The goal is to develop a modified diet that supports your unique biochemistry.
The AIP Diet:
Includes: quality protein (seafood, offal, grassfed beef, poultry), healthy fats, lots of vegetables, fruit, natural sugar, fermented vegetables
Excludes: grains, dairy, legumes/peas, eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, certain spices) nuts, seeds, refined sugar
The biggest problem with AIP is that I have seen far too many people follow AIP for far too long. This doesn't serve the body. I have also worked with women and families who were trying AIP on their own and completely stressed out about the experience because they were focusing on what to avoid instead of what to ADD to their plate. Once they started working with me, they were able to implement strategies, tools and processes that I KNOW work with families because I went through this myself.
Considerations For Your Autoimmune Meal Plan
After reading this, I know you're going to want to start googling solutions and recipes, and here's what I want you to keep in mind. There is a very big difference from simply removing "food triggers" from your diet versus adopting a nutrition mindset and working on improving the nutritional value of what you're eating to help support:
Energy metabolism (the #1 complaint of those with autoimmune)
Immune regulation (aches, pains, GI upset, rashes that you're trying to address)
Digestive function and wellness (gas, bowel movements, acid + gateway to every cell in your body)
Chicken, broccoli, sweet potato and coconut oil technically meets all three definitions of an Anti-Inflammatory, Paleo and AIP meal ... but from an autoimmune perspective, it lacks some core nutrients required to support the Autoimmune Nutrition Triad, so you can rebuild resilience and help get yourself out of the cycle of pain > exhaustion.
Plus, if you're relying on a small group of foods or bone broth to feed yourself and reduce inflammation, but not actively exploring what to ADD in, results will be minimal.
There are some common nutritional insufficiencies that are linked with the development of autoimmune disease and this is why all professionals place high value on high value foods. Addressing nutritional imbalances in your current diet using an Autoimmune Balanced Plate and other tools will help improve your experience.
Focusing on how you DIGEST your foods will also help ensure your body is optimally breaking down and absorbing what you're eating so those nutrients make it to the cells in the body.
These are areas that I focus on in with private client support and inside The Integrative Autoimmune Network because I have witnessed first hand the benefits to my clients and my own autoimmune family.
Having an autoimmune or auto-inflammatory disease can be very frustrating, scary and isolating. Having a child with an AID adds a whole other layer of complexity.
The thought of layering nutritional or lifestyle changes on top of your current treatment plan can be overwhelming. Paralyzing even. There is so much to do – all the time. This is why you need a plan. A tried-and-true process to get you from here to relief.
If you're just getting started, I recommend an Anti-Inflammatory approach as it can be a substantial shift from how you're currently eating with immense rewards. If you've been at this for a while or have an IBD that is flaring, you my be better served by trying Paleo or AIP, depending on changes you've previously made to her health plan.
If you have questions about how any of this applies to you - or need help with additional eating plans like LowFODMAP, low HISTAMINE or a kidney supportive nutrition plan - you can book a call with me to discuss what's working and not working for you. We'll identify the GAPS and areas of support/focus that will help you get better results, faster.
You can book your complimentary, 45-Min call with me here >>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A CLARITY CALL
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