Living with chronic inflammation can be overwhelming and painful. Confusion about what to eat and what to avoid can add even more stress to your day. But here is some good news: following the Autoimmune Protocol Diet (or the AIP diet plan) could relieve inflammation in the digestive tract and may help you feel better!
There are three components of the AIP diet. Eliminate food triggers that are gut-irritating. Then maintain these changes for 30-90 days. End the protocol by reintroducing foods into your diet.
In this article, you’ll learn how autoimmune disorders affect the body, specific foods to avoid and which are AIP-compliant. You will feel more confident to start the AIP diet plan after reading our shopping list and getting access to a sample three-day meal plan.
What Does Autoimmune Mean?
Your immune system includes your lymphatic system and white blood cells.1 They are constantly screening for harmful germs, bacteria, or viruses that could make you sick. Your white blood cells are called into action if a threat is identified.1
Activating your white blood cells is a normal inflammatory response that keeps you healthy.1 Once the germ or pathogen is destroyed, the inflammation will decline.
Autoimmune disorders are when your immune system targets pathogens and healthy organs and tissues in the body. It can lead to a chronic state of inflammation and significantly decrease quality of life. A few side effects of long-term inflammation include constant fatigue, swelling, pain all over the body, and skin changes.2
Examples of Autoimmune Diseases
Johns Hopkin Medical school states there are more than 80 different types of known autoimmune diseases.3 This is a shortened list of common diagnoses:
- Type 1 Diabetes.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis.
- Thyroid diseases, including Graves disease, resulting in an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). Or Hashimoto's, which leads to an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism).
Currently, there are no known cures for these conditions. The recommended ways to manage them are through healthy dietary strategies (the AIP diet plan may work for some people), regular physical activity as tolerated, and medications as prescribed.
What is the AIP Diet?
The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) is sometimes also called the Autoimmune Paleo Diet.3 It was designed to reduce inflammation by eliminating trigger foods. These foods may contain organic compounds and proteins that worsen some people's digestive inflammatory responses.3
By following the AIP diet plan and eliminating these foods, the inflammatory response decreases. A break in inflammation offers the body a chance to recover, and the lining of the gut wall can heal.
We know this restrictive diet plan is not suitable for everyone. It could help people who suffer from chronic inflammation related to an autoimmune condition.3
AIP Diet Plan
The AIP diet is a stricter version of the Paleo diet. It does not permit anything processed or ultra-processed (UPF). This change can be significant because many North Americans consume UPFs daily because they are affordable and convenient.
There are known adverse health effects of regularly eating UPFs.4 Health risks include unwanted weight gain, heart disease, and different forms of cancer, specifically colon cancer.5 UPFs are notoriously high in excess refined sugars, fats, and salt. Consuming large amounts of these ingredients may contribute to high levels of inflammation.6 For these reasons, UPFs are not recommended in the AIP diet plan.
Here are other foods that are not AIP-compliant. They carry proteins, and organic compounds that may aggravate the gastrointestinal tract in some people:3
- Nightshade vegetables - Examples include all tomato varieties, eggplant, potatoes, and peppers (including sweet bell peppers and spicy chilis).
- Nuts and seeds - You should only eliminate nuts, nut butter, and seeds from the diet if you know they worsen your symptoms. Most people do not need to restrict 100% of this food category.
- All grains.
- Legumes and beans.
- Coffee and Alcohol.
- Refined sugars, including white sugar, brown sugar, and high fructose corn syrup.
- Animal-based dairy products.
Keep in mind that everybody’s health and digestion are unique. This list is just a guideline.
As you move through the AIP diet plan, you will establish a version that best suits your needs. Ideally, you will have to eliminate as few foods as possible long term. Remember that restricting too many foods can expose you to nutrient and vitamin deficiencies.
The AIP Diet Plan Has Three Phases:
- Elimination Phase: four to six weeks of eliminating common trigger foods that may increase your body’s inflammatory response. This phase of the diet is temporary.
- Maintenance Phase: maintain the elimination diet for 30-90 days. Ensure you have included nutrient dense foods in your diet. If your symptoms have not resolved after 90 days, you may need to explore other options with your healthcare team.
- Reintroduction Phase: if you feel better, you should try introducing foods back into your diet. Approach this phase as scientifically as possible. Write a list of foods you want to bring back into your diet and reintroduce them one at a time. Allow seven days between each food.
The AIP diet plan is a long-term commitment, and it can be hard to stay on track. A Registered Dietitian can help you build a plan to meet your goals.
A Shopping List for the AIP Diet
Below are recommendations for AIP-friendly foods that should be on your shopping list if you try the AIP diet plan.
- Lean ground proteins including turkey, chicken, and beef
- Fish filets rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and trout. Other appropriate fish you can buy include cod, haddock, tilapia, and tuna.
- Seafood, including shrimp and scallops.
- Most vegetables are AIP-compliant except for nightshade options. You can include broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, turnips, zucchini, garlic, brussel sprouts, and onion.
- Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, and squashes.
- Most fresh fruits, including berries, apples, oranges, nectarines, pomegranates, and bananas, can be enjoyed.
- Coconut milk.
- Olive oil, avocado oil.
Sample AIP Meal Plan
Do you need help bringing all this information together? Here is an example of a three-day AIP diet plan you can try at home.
- Breakfast: Sweet potato toast with mashed avocado and spices, such as turmeric and ground cumin.
- Lunch: Baked tuna cakes served over fresh spinach and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Dinner: One-pan chicken with rosemary, parsnips, garlic, and fresh thyme. Glaze the dish with avocado oil, salt, cinnamon, and one tablespoon of maple syrup.
- Breakfast: Cassava flour pancakes topped with mixed berries.
- Lunch: Nori fish wraps with avocado and pickled vegetables.
- Dinner: Grass-fed steak with a green salad and sauteed mushrooms and squash on the side.
- Breakfast: Toast large coconut flakes to create a cold cereal texture and top with fresh fruits and coconut milk.
- Lunch: Chicken lettuce wraps with homemade AIP-friendly caesar dressing and sliced avocado.
- Dinner: Mediterranean-style shrimp cooked on a pan with olive oil, minced garlic, oregano, and basil. Served with baked zucchini, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
Does AIP Work?
Some scientific studies have measured how effectively the AIP diet plan can reduce inflammation. The findings are promising, but more research is needed to validate the results.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes Chron’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis. People can manage both conditions through diet, but painful flare-ups can occur.
During a flare-up, the intestinal walls become inflamed, and the digestive tract is sensitive to different foods and beverages.7 These acute instances can lead to fatigue, fever, diarrhea, blood in the stool, and a decreased appetite.
A research study from 2017 observed 15 participants who followed the AIP diet for approximately three weeks.8 At 11 weeks, the participants completed an endoscopy (an imaging test with a scope), and visible inflammation along the gut walls had decreased. People who suffer from IBD conditions may benefit from the AIP diet plan.
Hashimotos is an autoimmune disorder that targets and destroys thyroid cells. It results in the underproduction of thyroid hormone (clinically known as hypothyroidism). Most people will rely on medication to manage their thyroid levels.
A study from 2019 looked at the role of the AIP diet in people diagnosed with Hashimotos.9 Participants had blood drawn at the start and end of the study. Researchers were checking thyroid and c-protein levels. High levels of c-protein can be an indication of inflammation.9
After ten weeks, the TSH levels in participants were the same, but the c-protein had decreased.9 The sample size of this study is small and more research with a larger population would strengthen the findings. The AIP diet plan may help people who have been diagnosed with Hashimotos.
Leaky gut is not an official diagnosis in western medicine, but it is a hot topic in the nutrition world.
The current definition of a leaky gut is the increased permeability (or passability) of intestinal walls.10 There is an increased risk of germs and bacteria passing into the surrounding tissues of the gut. Unwanted germs and bacteria lead to inflammation and can cause significant pain.
Studies have confirmed that other autoimmune conditions, such as Chron's, have permeable intestinal walls, contributing to poor gut health and uncomfortable symptoms.11
The AIP diet plan may improve the leaky gut by decreasing the inflammatory response to foods. Less stress on the gut will give it a chance to heal and recover.
Are There Any Risks of the AIP Diet Plan?
The AIP diet plan can result in low fiber intake because it eliminates whole grains, legumes, several vegetables, nuts, and seeds, which are all high sources of fiber.
Low fiber intake is linked to several diseases, including cancer, heart disease, type two diabetes, constipation, and diverticular disease.12
Daily Fiber Recommendations
Women (ages 19-30): 28g
Women (ages 31-50): 25g
Women (ages 51+): 22g
Men (ages 19-30): 34g
Men (ages 31-50): 31g
Men (ages 51+): 28g
In the most recent USDA Dietary Guidelines it was noted that more than 90% of women and 97% of men are not meeting recommended dietary fiber goals.13 These numbers are staggeringly high.
You should create a robust AIP diet plan that prioritizes high-fiber vegetables and fruits to help you satisfy your fiber requirements. These include avocados, berries, broccoli, cabbages, and other cruciferous vegetables.
The Fear Of Moving Forward
People who have suffered from chronic inflammation may find relief after starting the AIP diet plan. Understandably, they may be afraid to move out of the elimination phase, fearing the pain and discomfort will return.
It is essential to move on to the reintroduction phase because a sustainable diet needs variety. If you feel stuck or fearful, reach out to a friend or, even better, a trained Dietitian. They can offer actionable steps to move forwards while still maintaining your progress.
The Bottom Line
AIP is an elimination diet designed to help you identify food-triggered irritations. People who suffer from autoimmune conditions or leaky gut are the best candidates to try the AIP diet plan.
Remember that the diet has three phases and is a long-term commitment. People with an advanced understanding of nutrition can start the diet independently. However, beginners with no nutrition education should ask for help to make safe nutrition choices.
Avoid staying in the elimination phase for too long because it can expose you to nutritional deficiencies. The AIP diet plan can be low in fiber, and a low fiber intake can worsen your long-term health. Limit your risk by prioritizing fiber-rich foods at all meals, starting with breakfast.
Challenge yourself to try new recipes and include as much variety in your meal plan. If you struggle with cooking daily, consider meal prepping a few dishes in advance.
How a Dietitian Can Help
The path to a healthier, happier you isn’t always straightforward. Partner with autoimmune dietitians at Nourish for help achieving health and wellness through personalized nutrition counseling. Tap into our national telehealth network of online dietitians who accept insurance. Get started today!
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