Is that AIP diet you were advised to follow for your autoimmune disease causing you more angst than you imagined? You know diet plays a role in managing your symptoms, but you’re not sure how to navigate the AIP diet due to all the limitations? While it may feel overwhelming now, there are some easy ways to identify tricky foods so you can feel confident in the kitchen again.
The AIP diet was designed to lower inflammation and provide symptomatic relief from your autoimmune disease, but staying AIP compliant doesn’t have to take over your life. The AIP diet can be very useful in treating your autoimmunity, but first we have to get to the bottom of how to identify those tricky gray-area foods and where they fit in for you. Let’s look at some quick tips on how to identify tricky AIP foods, so you can reap the benefits of lowered inflammation sooner rather than later.
What Is the AIP Diet?
So what is the AIP diet? The Autoimmune Protocol diet, or AIP for short, is an anti-inflammatory diet intended to help you better manage and treat symptoms of autoimmunity and autoimmune disorders, by supporting a dysregulated immune system. The autoimmune protocol is a type of elimination diet. By eliminating problematic foods that disrupt digestion, irritate the gut lining, and trigger gut bacteria imbalance (known as dysbiosis), the diet seeks to promote gut healing and decrease systemic inflammation. (Source, Source)
The autoimmune protocol diet can be a good approach to treating your autoimmune disease, as well as preventing and treating chronic illness. The results you can expect to see from putting the AIP diet into action depend on your autoimmune diagnosis. You may be able to stop your disease from progressing for a period of time, or even put your disease into remission with this food-first approach. For some autoimmune sufferers, the AIP diet may be just what they need to manage their symptoms drug free.
How Does AIP Work?
Moving away from the ever inflammatory Standard American Diet (SAD) can help your gut begin to heal as trigger foods are eliminated and nutrient-dense foods are added in. The autoimmune protocol has gained momentum in the last decade as more people following it find their symptoms decrease, their energy improves, and they feel better overall. With the increase of macronutrients and micronutrients from consuming a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods regularly, the body has the opportunity to thrive.
The autoimmune protocol is broken down into 3 phases: elimination, reintroduction, and personalization (sometimes called maintenance). These 3 phases should be followed to discover and eliminate food intolerances to better manage your autoimmune disease.
The 3 Phases of the AIP Diet
The elimination phase is an approximately 6 week period of cutting out inflammatory foods and maintaining this pattern until symptoms are relieved. After successfully completing elimination, reintroduction is the slow process of bringing back some of those eliminated foods one at a time, while tracking the body’s response to each. Reintroduction is important for identifying tricky foods that may be contributing to your autoimmune symptoms. The third phase, personalization, is where you can comfortably stay long-term to manage your symptoms through a food-first approach. (Source)
Treating Autoimmunity With Diet Makes Sense
As the root causes of autoimmune disease become clearer, the need for a diet and lifestyle approach to treatment makes sense. Research shows that autoimmune disease is oftentimes rooted in trauma, leading to a weakened immune state that could result in autoimmune disease over time. Controlling inflammation through a mindful diet and lifestyle regime may be just what your body needs in order to treat your autoimmune disease appropriately. (Source)
Is It AIP Friendly?
When you start the AIP diet you may find some gray areas as far as which foods are acceptable and which are not. Some of the foods eliminated in AIP are also included as acceptable foods, so what’s going on here? As mentioned, there are 3 phases to the AIP diet, and that’s key to understanding what foods you should and should not consume. Many of the foods not allowed in the elimination phase of AIP are highly nutritious, and if you can tolerate them, can be added back into your diet later.
AIP Food Basics
The elimination phase of AIP removes foods, food additives, and medications that may cause inflammation, allergies, gut dysbiosis, and imbalanced gut bacteria while potentially triggering common food sensitivities. Here's a list of foods to eliminate in this first phase of the AIP diet:
- grains: rice, wheat, oats
- legumes: lentils, beans, peas, peanuts
- nightshades: eggplants, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes
- dairy: any products derived from cow’s milk
- coffee: decaf and regular
- alcohol: all
- nuts and seeds: whole nuts, nut butters, seed oils, and spices derived from seeds
- refined, artificial, added sugars: white, brown, aspartame, stevia
- refined and seed oils: all processed oils including canola/rapeseed, corn, cottonseed, peanut, grapeseed, rice bran, safflower, sunflower, soy
- food additives: emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilizers such as guar gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan, lecithin
By removing these triggers for a time, your gut bacteria should improve and your inflammation decrease, as your gut lining heals and repairs itself through high quality nutrition. (Source)
Foods To Include on AIP
To offset systemic inflammation, the AIP diet focuses on nourishing and healing the gut and balancing gut bacteria with nutrient dense foods such as:
- vegetables: all except nightshades
- fruits: fresh or frozen; low glycemic are best
- high quality animal and seafood proteins: grass-fed beef, poultry, seafood low in toxins
- fermented foods and beverages
- high quality vegetable oils: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil
- herbal teas
- nuts and seeds
You may have noticed nuts and seeds are on both lists, or may be wondering if nuts can be added back in during personalization. The answer is yes and no: How the reintroduction phase goes will determine if you can tolerate nuts and seeds regularly, or even just once in a while. This holds true for a lot of tricky foods in AIP.
4 Tricky Foods
Within AIP diet guidelines, there are overlapping foods that are deemed not acceptable to consume when you first start, but then okay to have later on. This is because of the diet’s 3 phases: elimination, reintroduction, and personalization.
Inflammatory foods that irritate the gut lining and trigger an immune response are removed during the elimination phase. The reintroduction phase slowly adds some of these foods back into the diet as you keep track of how your body responds to them. The personalization phase is your very own version of the paleo diet, a less strict version of AIP.
Each of us is on a unique journey when we decide to utilize the AIP diet to control our autoimmune disease, and these tricky foods show us just how unique we all are.
Grains are eliminated during AIP and should continue to be avoided throughout. Once you reach the personalization phase, you’ll most likely be transitioning into a paleo-style diet, which is much less restrictive but still has its health conscious boundaries. Even so, you may be able to add back in grains such as quinoa (actually a seed!), amaranth, and buckwheat in moderation.
“Pseudo Grains” May Be More Tolerable
What’s special about these grains? They are what we call “pseudo grains,” as they are completely gluten free and high in carbs, but also high in lectins and phytic acid, which can be difficult for some to digest. Lectins may increase leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, as well as trigger an immune reaction, while phytic acid can block mineral absorption in the gut. You may find these grains easier to tolerate if you soak them first. Unfortunately, not all of us can tolerate this group of wanna-be grains even with soaking, and in that case we must bid them farewell from our diet. (Source, Source)
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are to be avoided during the elimination phase for all, but may be reintroduced later on. The reason: phytic acid strikes again. Remember phytic acid blocks mineral absorption, specifically zinc, iron, and, to a lesser extent, calcium. Similar to pseudo grains, nuts and seeds may be soaked to break down some of the phytic acid, making them more tolerable for consumption. Nut and seed butters have lower amounts of phytic acid than whole nuts and seeds, but all should be consumed in moderation. (Source)
Chia and flaxseed are known for their high omega-3 fatty acids, are popular as smoothie add-ins, and can be used as egg substitutes in baked goods if they are tolerated after reintroduction. While these seeds do contain phytic acid, they can also be a great source of vitamins and minerals. (Source, Source)
What About Seed-Derived Spices?
There are many spices derived from seeds that we may consume unknowingly, such as anise, annatto, black carraway, celery seed, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, mustard, and nutmeg. As with other seeds, these seed spices should be avoided during the elimination phase of AIP, but may be brought back into the diet during the reintroduction phase. Seed spices tend to be well tolerated by most.
What About Seeds in Berries and Bananas?
Now that we’re on the topic of seeds, maybe you’re wondering if fruits and vegetables that are usually consumed along with their seeds, such as berries, bananas, plantains, kiwifruits, kumquats, persimmons, pomegranates, cucumbers, and zucchini/summer squashes can be eaten. The simple answer is that if you are not seeing improvement on the AIP diet while eating these foods, you might get greater relief by eliminating them. Another option would be to spoon out the seeds of these fruits and vegetables for tolerable consumption.
Eggs are one of the top 8 allergens — right up there with dairy — which is why everyone on the AIP diet should avoid them initially. However, eggs are also highly nutritious and a great source of vitamin E, choline, DHA, and EPA fatty acids. Egg whites tend to create problems more than yolks, and a great way to add eggs back in once you’ve seen an improvement in your inflammation is to start with just the yolks. If you decide to reintroduce eggs, do yourself a favor and choose high quality eggs from pasture-raised chickens. If possible, find a friend or local farmer who can supply you with eggs from healthy hens!
As stated before, dairy is one of the top 8 allergens and may be problematic for those with autoimmune disease. However, ghee, a form of clarified butter, is almost 100% fat, meaning only trace protein and sugar from dairy remain, making it low in lactose and casein. This fat is great for gut health due to its high butyrate content which reduces inflammation, seals up the gut lining, and regulates the immune system. Ghee is also a solid source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and can be consumed in the elimination phase of AIP. If you are not able to tolerate butter there is a good chance ghee will be tolerable because although it’s a form of butter, it isn’t truly considered dairy, making it a tricky food for sure. (Source, Source)
The Bottom Line on Identifying Tricky Foods on AIP
Knowing which foods to avoid because they increase your inflammation is helpful in managing your autoimmune disease, as is being able to identify and understand tricky foods that fall into the gray area of the AIP diet. Once you have successfully passed through each phase of the AIP diet to uncover food intolerances and learn what foods affect your levels of inflammation, a more individualized and less strict diet plan can be maintained. Your personalized diet plan will most likely include some of these tricky foods we discussed.
If you’re considering the AIP diet to experience a reduction in symptoms, the WellTheory 1-1 coaching membership can help take the guesswork out of adhering to its guidelines. Working with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner can provide hands-on guidance so you can identify and adhere to a dietary approach supportive of your condition. If you’re ready to make some nutritional changes but not quite ready to go full AIP, WellTheory can still help! Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all diet. If you're interested in reducing symptom severity but not ready to try the full AIP diet, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner can create a personalized nutrition and lifestyle plan that supports the healing process.