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A Simple Guide to the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol
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Focusing on the Bounty
When we talk about the paleo autoimmune protocol (AIP), we often focus on what we CAN’T eat. There’s a reason for that. It’s a big change from the diet we’ve spent our lives eating, and when you first start the protocol, you can find yourself looking at an empty plate and asking “Well, what CAN I eat?” I have a grocery list on this website, and there are many cookbooks and meal plans available, but sometimes it’s helpful to have a visual picture of what this diet looks like. Here’s the truth: you can eat delicious, satiating food every day on the AIP, and that’s a key to this diet being sustainable. If you feel deprived, you won’t stick with it.
Another reason I drew this pyramid (besides the fact that it was fun) is to show which foods should make up the bulk of your diet. In order to reverse autoimmune disease, you need to give your body intense nutrition to heal. If all you’re doing is eating chicken breasts and AIP desserts, you’re unlikely to be successful. This is a common mistake people make on the AIP. The foundation of the AIP food pyramid is healing foods, and we need to become nutrient seekers.
- The Base/Foundation: 6-14 Cups Vegetables Per Day (Measured Before Cooking). That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? There’s a reason. Dr. Terry Wahls is the physician who reversed MS and got out of a wheelchair and onto a bicycle, through a nutrient-dense paleo diet. A key to her healing was getting nutrition through food instead of supplements, and her research showed that vegetables contain 31 micronutrients that our bodies need to heal. Dr. Sarah Ballantyne was inspired by Terry’s research when she wrote The Paleo Approach. Sarah’s health also started to turn around when she focused on nutrient density. So, eat as wide a variety of vegetables as possible, from the following food groups: brightly colored, leafy greens, and sulfur-rich. Also eat a little bit of seaweed every week. The only vegetables not allowed on the AIP are nightshades and legumes. The vegetables are measured raw, but strive to eat a combination of cooked and raw vegetables for optimal nutrition. However, if you have digestive issues, cooked vegetables are easier to digest. Lastly, if you have trouble reaching your daily vegetable goal, you can do vegetable smoothies, but drink them alongside a meal. Otherwise they can spike blood sugar. Want some recipe inspiration? Here’s an A-Z Vegetable Recipe Roundup.
- Level 2: Organ Meats, Wild-Caught Seafood, Bone Broth and Fermented Foods. These are all important healing foods on the AIP. Organ meats have 10-100 times the nutrition of other cuts of meat. It’s a myth that they store toxins. Rather, they store the nutrition our bodies need to remove toxins. Ideally, eat them at least 4 times per week. Wild-caught seafood is the most abundant source of omega-3 fatty acids. A key to reducing inflammation in the body is increasing omega-3 consumption and decreasing omega-6 consumption. Ideally, eat seafood at least 3 times per week. Bone broth contains nutrition that helps heal a leaky gut, and there is a direct connection between leaky gut and autoimmune disease. Ideally, drink 1 cup daily. Fermented foods are beneficial in many ways: they help moderate the immune system, heal leaky gut, aid digestion, and act as anti-inflammatories. Eat some every day.
- Level 3: Quality Meats. The AIP isn’t a vegetarian diet. Meat is rich in bio-available vitamins and minerals that we can’t find elsewhere, particularly B vitamins, iron and zinc. And if your meat is grass-fed, it also has omega-3 fatty acids, CLA and Vitamin K2. I know not everyone can afford grass-fed meat all the time. Work within your budget, and do the best you can. Some of the least expensive cuts are organ meats, bones, ground meat, and braising meats (the tougher cuts that become tender with longer cooking times). Follow the weekly AIP Recipe Roundtable for new recipe ideas.
- Level 4: Healthy Fats. Many of us were raised in a low-fat culture, so it can be shocking to realize that fats are essential to our health. 50% of every cell membrane is made of fat, and 60% of our brain is fat. Fats are the building blocks of our hormones, and many vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning we can’t absorb them without fat. So, incorporate autoimmune-friendly fats into every meal: coconut oil, lard, tallow, duck fat, red palm oil, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil.
- Level 5: Fruit. When you stop eating junk food, fruit suddenly tastes so much sweeter. An added bonus is that it’s nutritious at the same time. Berries are an especially good choice, since they are higher in antioxidants than other fruits. Since fruits contain natural sugars, limit to a few servings per day on the AIP. Goji berries are the only fruit excluded on the AIP, because it’s a nightshade.
- Level 6: Treats. Part of being happy on the AIP long-term is knowing you can have cake on your birthday, and the occasional cookie or slice of pie. If you feel too deprived, you’ll be tempted to binge on commercial junk food, and that’s a recipe for a flare. Just remember this is the smallest level on the food pyramid. Save treats for special occasions, and savor every bite. If you’re looking for recipes, I have a Pinterest board of AIP-friendly desserts.
- Note: This food pyramid is based on the AIP as described in The Paleo Approach.
Bonus Trivia: The Politics of the USDA Food Pyramid
Did you know that the woman hired to research and create the FDA food pyramid didn’t include grains as the foundation? Instead, she recommend vegetables as the foundation, then meat, then healthy fats. She limited “empty calories” to 10% of daily intake, and included most grains in that category. When she submitted it to her supervisors, food lobbyists took over, and literally turned her food pyramid upside down. She warned that if they published those recommendations, obesity and chronic disease would skyrocket. And that’s exactly what happened. For the full story, read the compelling book, Death By Food Pyramid.
I’ve written a series of articles to guide you through the autoimmune protocol, step by step. It includes FAQ, mistakes to avoid, book reviews, and more. Click here to see the whole list.