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 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 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 Rebuild Triad, which means ...

Emphasizing nutrient dense (or high value) foods to feed energy metabolism, immune resilience and digestive function all at the same time versus simply avoiding a long list of potentially pro-inflammatory culprits, or trying to work on just hormones or just gut health.

It's all connected.

Before I get into what those plans look like, 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.

  • There is no medical speciality devoted to general or umbrella autoimmune research and treatment. For example, rheumatology looks at only rheumatic disease, endocrinology only looks at hormonal dysfunction, etc. Research funds are splintered.

Genetics are only one reason why a person will develop an AID. 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.

This is a huge win.

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?

 When I recommend a nutrition plan, here's what I consider:
 
  • 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)?

  • Medications

  • 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

  • Energy levels

  • What do you have the bandwidth to commit to for 3 - 6 months?

That's a lot of customization.

As a reader, I recommend you start by simply understanding your options. Then, you need to 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.

You may be at first steps with exploring food, or you've been working at this for quite some time.

To follow is a very simple overview of three proven 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 they're missing some core ingredients required to restore immune health and digestive wellness.

The definition of an “anti-inflammatory” diet is very broad. There are various “anti-inflammatory” diets and trends (DASH, macrobiotic, Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan).

For many of my autoimmune 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.

  • Avoid gluten and limit grains. Gluten is being increasingly associated with autoimmune and a high portion of people with an autoimmune disease have non-celiac sensitivity.

  • 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.

So, I give them the tools, strategies and coaching to make this step as simple as possible, so they can improve their energy and feel like they can do more. THEN 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 ...

In my world (supporting men, women and children with autoimmune and inflammatory conditions), the two most studied diets to help reduce symptoms associated with an autoimmune are the Paleo Diet 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.

Here's why.

 

The Paleo Diet

Many people assume the Paleo diet is a weight loss program, heavy in meat or a fad diet (the Whole 30 popularized this notion). 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.

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.

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 online program, The Autoimmune Action Plan and one of my E-Guides 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 this protocol 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 more research is coming on eczema and rheumatoid arthritis.

  • 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).

Once symptoms have reduced, you are supposed to 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.

I have seen far too many people follow AIP for far too long. This doesn't serve the body.

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

I have worked with women and families who were trying AIP on their own and completely stressed out. 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.

As an AIP Certified Coach, I also have specific training with the AIP and Paleo protocols many other autoimmune experts don’t. It’s the combination of personal understanding and professional experience which makes coaching valuable.

 

No Matter Which Autoimmune Nutrition Plan You Choose 

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 Rebuild 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.

So will focusing on how you DIGEST your foods because you want to 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 The Autoimmune Action Plan and with private client support because I have witnessed first hand the benefits to my clients and my own autoimmune family.

 

CONCLUSION

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.

Please remember, that there is no perfect path – you are unique in your situation. You just need to start moving forward.

If you have any questions, reach out! You can find me at [email protected]

 

References:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/5-studies-on-the-paleo-diet

https://terrywahls.com

https://www.thepaleomom.com/about/about-sarah/

https://autoimmunewellness.com

https://www.thepaleomom.com/what-is-leaky-gut-and-how-can-it-cause/

 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5647120/

 

Thyroid:

https://autoimmunewellness.com/aip-hashimotos-medical-study-results/

 

Rheumatic Disease:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5682732/

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/diet-affects-autoinflammatory-disease-gut-microbes

https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/anti-inflammatory/itis-a-supercharged-mediterranean-diet-for-ra

 

Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity In Those With Autoimmunr

https://www.gastrojournal.org/article/S0016-5085(15)00767-2/fulltext?referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov%2F

 

Multiple Sclerosis:

https://multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com/living-with-ms/ms-diet-nutrition/paleo-diet-and-ms/

 

Confused about what food, supplement or diet is best for your body & condition? Book an introductory call with Vanessa to discover how working with a nutritional professional will help you improve your energy, pain and digestion.

Book A Time To Talk