7 Tips for Optimizing Your Autoimmune Diet
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There’s a plethora of diet options for healing autoimmune disease: Paleo, the Autoimmune Protocol diet (AIP), Wahls Protocol, GAPS, and many more. No matter which diet you choose, here are 7 easy ways to optimize your autoimmune diet to ensure you’re giving it the best chance at healing and reversing your autoimmune symptoms.
As an autoimmune-r myself… I, like you, have searched and searched for anything that can help symptoms. ANYTHING. And one of those things you tend to see over and over again is diet, diet, diet.
What you eat can make a huge difference in how you feel and this is definitely true for me. Aside from faith & homeopathy, my diet is probably the biggest driver for all my autoimmune healing progress.
The issue I’ve noticed, though, is that you have one doctor/practitioner telling you never EVER to eat nuts and seeds. And others saying they are fine. Then you’ll get another saying all grains are poison, and others saying that grains aren’t the problem.
All the differing opinions are confusing and some opinions can become so engrained in our brains, that we stay away from certain foods just because we’ve been told they are bad (like fat… remember when fat was the enemy of all enemies? And now we have the Keto diet…).
Which leads to the question:
How exactly do you know which diets and foods are the best for autoimmune disease?
The answer is simple: The body knows best. YOUR body, in particular.
I am grateful for diets like the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), Wahls Protocol, Dr. Brooke Goldner’s autoimmune vegan protocol, and more. There are amazing success stories, including my own, tied with all of these. But these diets are templates. They are starting points to help us find the most sustainable, totally customized diet for us on an individual level.
Even with these templates, though, I find there are components of the diet experience, from selecting and preparing your food to actually eating it, that are easily overlooked but can make all the difference in whether or not a diet is working for you.
Sometimes success (or lack thereof) might have nothing to do with the types of food you’re eating, but rather HOW you are eating them or even your general mindset towards the diet itself. You’ll see what I mean as I get into the tips below.
As for which foods to eat or which diet to follow? That’s something that requires a bit of experimentation to see what works for your body, but regardless of what you pick, there are easy ways to optimize your diet of choice to ensure you’re giving it the best shot.
7 Tips for Optimizing Your Autoimmune Diet
1. Consistency is key.
Want to save time, money, & extreme frustration? Pick the diet you’re interested in most (here’s a list of a few to consider), and go after it 100%. That means NO CHEATING OF ANY KIND at least for the period of time you are giving yourself.
If you want to give an autoimmune diet a fair chance, then it’s only fair to give whatever diet(s) you choose a fair shot. I know I grew up with the preconceived notion that “diets” were meant to lose weight, and “cheating” was more of a reward people gave themselves after sticking to their diet for however many days in a row, or a celebratory sort of thing on special occasions.
But an autoimmune diet geared towards healing isn’t one of those diets. For some people, it can actually be their medicine – the one thing available to them that gives true, full-body relief. As a result, a little “cheat” day is devastating. Even one bite of the wrong food can result in a cascade of symptoms, causing inflammation that lasts for weeks.
If one small bite of the wrong food can cause inflammation for days or weeks, then you can imagine that cheating won’t give an accurate picture of what that diet is (or isn’t) doing for you.
We, of course, know this is much easier said than done. So, Frank honed in on his health coaching skills and wrote a post to help. Click below to read.
How to Start & Actually Stick to an Autoimmune Healing Diet
Bottom line – once you pick your diet, CONSISTENCY is the key to discovering if it’s working for you. Commit and give it your all.
Tip – if the only reason you are NOT committing to a diet 100% is because you do not want to give up a certain type of food (like coffee), then simply start the diet with the addition of coffee. You can always take it out later.
2. Observe like you’ve never observed before.
Food reactions can be anywhere from subtle joint pain to itchy hives to curling-up-in-a-ball gastric distress. Some reactions can present themselves within minutes, while others can take hours, a few days, or may even accumulate over the period of several weeks depending on how often you eat the food.
To make it even more confusing, you may react to some of the foods “allowed” on the diet you’re following. Just because there are certain foods on the safe list doesn’t mean all those foods work for you. If that’s the case, it’s imperative to find and avoid those foods if possible.
We like health journals/diaries for this exact reason – they provide a place to record all your details in one place so you can pick up on any sneaky food sensitivities. (We have a free health journal starter template that can help! Just click the button below and we’ll send it to you.)
Related: 9 of the Best Health Journals for Managing Autoimmune Disease
Pay attention to how you feel when eating particular foods, both physically and mentally. Observe your emotions. Tune in to cravings, likes, and dislikes. You may find yourself subconsciously avoiding foods you have sensitivities to, or vice versa. Some cravings might be signs of nutritional deficiencies. I, for example, crave dark chocolate when I am magnesium deficient.
Your body has all the answers, it’s just a matter of putting the puzzle together. Observe closely (the more you practice, the better you’ll get) and use those observations as a tool to find the foods your body likes and needs the most.
3. Experiment with different cooking and prep methods.
I wish I discovered this earlier in my autoimmune journey.
Sometimes, you can be eating all the right foods, but consuming them the wrong way.
For example, I like to eats lots of vegetables, of all kinds. But, if I eat brussels sprouts raw or boiled, I get insane gas. Yea… gross. So, for the sake of others, I do not eat brussels sprouts unless they are roasted.
Likewise, I discovered that outside of the cabbage family, I do the best with raw or lightly steamed foods. I don’t do well with roasted or fried foods in oil. I experience less issues when I soak and/or sprout legumes, nuts, & seeds to break down lectin content. I don’t tolerate baked goods of any kind on a consistent basis and reserve them only for special occasions. Many of these lessons were learned accidentally, but by observing, I eventually saw the pattern.
So, imagine if I was eating on a daily basis: baked breakfast muffins, raw brussels sprouts salad, paired with roasted vegetables doused in coconut oil, topped off with a Paleo granola made with unsoaked and unsprouted nuts and seeds of all kinds. I’d feel terrible!!! But not because of the foods – just because of how I prepared them.
As you progress in your diet and feel more comfortable with the types of foods you are eating, start experimenting with different cooking methods. Pay attention to textures.
Ask yourself things like:
- Do you feel better if there is a liquid or a sauce to go with your food? (I actually feel better when I pair almost everything I eat with some sort of dip, sauce, etc. Dry food tends to just sit in my stomach.)
- If you’re not tolerating nuts, seeds, or legumes – have you tried soaking, sprouting, pressure cooking, etc. to see if that helps?
- How do fermented foods make you feel? How about raw foods? Steamed? Roasted? Baked goods?
Keep in mind – some of these observations may change as your taste buds and gut adjust to new types of foods.
4. Dial in the mechanics of eating.
I’m talking about chewing.
Along with the theme of it’s not necessarily the type of food but how you prepare it, I say the same about chewing. It’s not necessarily the type of food but how you chew it.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a deal breaker, but given all the gut problems so many of us have, one of the best things we can do to help ourselves out is to take the time to chew our food properly so big chunks don’t sit in our stomach and essentially rot if your body isn’t able to produce enough enzymes to break it down. You also don’t want to miss out on all the beneficial nutrients.
This is actually one of the reasons I love smoothies. I fell in love with smoothies after discovering Dr. Brooke Goldner, as much of her autoimmune protocol is literally drinking a giant nutrient-dense smoothie. The food’s already broken down for you, which makes absorbing those nutrients a lot easier than the countless number of chews it would take to achieve the same thing.
But it’s not just chewing… it’s also your environment. Are you always rushing through your meal? Is your nervous system always on hyperdrive because of where you are eating your food? If so, SLLLOWWW DOWWWNNN. These things matter. You want your body to enjoy eating, not dread it because it’s rushing madly to the finish line all the time.
If you need help, read this article on how to chew (aim for 32 times, on average) and this article on Mindful Eating and try the tips. I think you’ll find that this often-overlooked factor makes a huge difference in how your body responds to food.
6. If needed, support the digestive process and gut health.
Not everyone will need extra digestive support, especially when practicing mindful eating and chewing food thoroughly. But, if your digestive system is struggling to keep up even when you are eating healthy foods, you may mistakenly think your bloating and gas are symptoms of a food intolerance, when they are really a result of a sluggish or poorly-equipped gut.
To help explain this further, I recommend reading this article by Dr. Izabella Wentz and pay specific attention to Step 2 – Supplement with Enzymes. (Even though this article is in reference to Hashimoto’s Disease, it can be helpful for a wide range of autoimmune conditions especially if leaky gut is involved… which it usually is.)
7. Use testing to support your observations and add targeted supplementation.
If you like data, there are tests for you, and they are so helpful for finding the right diet for you, even on a genetic level, literally.
That’s not to say that using an elimination diet like the AIP diet and then reintroducing foods one-by-one doesn’t give an accurate indication of what foods you may be sensitive to. I used this method for years and it worked really well for me.
But, if you want something more concrete, or maybe you feel you are missing something, or are concerned about nutrient deficiencies, consider the tests below to help.
Food Sensitivity Testing
This type of testing looks at blood for IgG antibody food sensitivities, which are different than the IgE antibodies usually tested for food allergies. There is a lot of debate within the functional medicine community as to whether these tests are accurate or offer any helpful information, so this is something to discern and research before deciding to use food sensitivity testing.
However, out of curiosity, I just did one myself and it came back very accurate in comparison to my own observations throughout the years of experimenting with various autoimmune diets.
I ordered the USBioTek Food Sensitivity panel from DirectLabs (you do NOT need a doctor to order this test for you) after reading this article from Dr. Alan Christianson, who recommends USBioTek as a trustworthy lab for food sensitivity testing. If you are considering food sensitivity testing, I highly recommend reading his article.
(If you are interested in viewing the test I ordered, visit this link to DirectLabs and look for the 208 Food Panel IgG (Blood Spot)-US BioTek Kit, or the 144 Food Panel IgG (Blood Spot)-US BioTek Kit. I find that this is different upon viewing on desktop vs. smartphone, so if you can’t find it even via my link, then you can always do a search on the website.)
Nutritional Genetic Testing
This type of testing helps you optimize and personalize your diet, lifestyle, and environment using your genetics.
I also did this test out of curiosity and found there were possible gaps in my diet based on my genetic needs. For example, my personal autoimmune diet is low in choline, an essential nutrient important for liver and brain function (among many other things), but genetically I could probably benefit from more. So, I decided to take a choline supplement since I cannot eat eggs and do not eat nearly enough liver to obtain a regular intake of dietary choline.
Nutritional Blood Testing to Check for Nutrient Deficiencies
There are many nutrient deficiencies associated with autoimmune disease such as Magnesium, Vitamin D, various B vitamins, etc. and symptoms can be caused by these types of deficiencies that many may blame on food intolerances or just autoimmune disease itself.
So, it’s vital to know if you suffer from any of these common deficiencies so you can either add specific foods to your diet that are high in said-nutrients, or take supplements to address the deficiency. You might be surprised to see some symptoms disappear when you fill these nutritional gaps to round out what your autoimmune diet isn’t providing.
Regardless, you still end up with a diet/supplement protocol that is unique to YOU.
For more information on common nutrient deficiencies, read this article from Dr. Amy Myers about the 6 Key Nutrient Deficiencies Linked to Autoimmunity.
7. Remember, there are no rules.
You’re probably thinking “WHAT?!”… especially after I literally just told you to follow the rules and stay consistent with your diet without cheating in Tip #1.
So let me clarify. Yes, when we are talking about a specific diet like AIP, Wahls Protocol, GAPS, Paleo, etc… of course there are rules. You should follow them strictly and consistently… at first.
But, that’s just to get you started. Eventually, you’ll get so good at finding what does and doesn’t work for your body, that you might venture into breaking the rules a little bit. That’s okay, because they aren’t your rules anyways.
Some of these diets are so strict, that you can eventually develop nutritional deficiencies if you aren’t careful/supplementing properly, or your gut health may suffer from lack of diversity.
The mission is to find YOUR rules of your autoimmune diet, which you may develop using a bunch of factors – nutritional needs, sustainability, availability, morality/beliefs, budget, social needs, etc.
Just because your diet breaks someone else’s diet rules doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Honestly, I can find critics for every single type of food out there, so no matter what type of diet you land on – there will be critics and others in full support (just look at vegan vs. carnivore.)
BUT, and this is a big BUT, it is important to educate yourself on WHY doctors, experts, patients, etc. recommend avoiding specific foods. Hear them out – listen to their talks/podcasts, read their books, and keep an open mind.
Maybe they are on to something that resonates with you. That information is very powerful when it comes to creating your unique diet, and might be so impactful that you stick to the rules of a diet 100%, even for the rest of your life.
How These All Work Together to Optimize Your Autoimmune Diet:
- Committing 100% to a specific diet template for a length of time will give your body a chance to respond without having to navigate the possible inflammatory responses from a cheat day. Thus, you’ll be able to determine if that diet template is a good fit for you or not.
- Observing your responses to specific foods helps you determine which foods are contributing to your autoimmune symptoms and which ones are not. Thus, you are able to add or remove foods to make a more customized diet that fits your body.
- Preparing foods in the way that your body responds best to, will not only help you benefit more from those foods, but could also expand your diet to include a wider variety of foods.
- Practicing mindfulness and focusing on the mechanics of eating helps make the food work for you, and increases your chances of absorbing all the goodness.
- Supporting the digestive process also aids in helping make the food work for you, and can minimize any symptoms that may be confused for a food intolerance.
- Testing can help personalize your diet & lifestyle further, even on a genetic level, so you know your diet and supplement protocol is totally optimized to your body.
- Keeping an open mind and viewing your diet more as an experiment rather than a strict set of rules will help you create your own version of a diet that you can sustain.
What are you left with when you combine all these together? A totally customized autoimmune diet that works just for you, complete with the best cooking methods & supplements to help make all those foods work for you and not against you.
If at the end of optimizing all of these things, you still just can’t seem to get your diet quite right, or feel you are plateauing in your progress, then it might be time to shift your focus to other root causes. Look at stress, sleep, movement, and even infections to help you address all possible problem areas so you’re confident you’re taking a whole-body approach to reversing your autoimmune symptoms.
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Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits, so you can find the healing you deserve.