This is Part 3 of our Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Diet series. The other posts in this series include:
I’ve had great success with the Autoimmune Protocol Diet. Paired with a few other supplements/interventions, I’ve experienced complete reversal of autoimmune symptoms and reduction in my Hashimoto’s thyroid antibodies.
But, I’ll admit it – I think, in a sense, I totally FAILED at following this protocol. Looking back, I’m really, really surprised it worked for me, especially the first time I tried it. Not because the diet is bad (far from it), but because there are ways to manipulate it into being inflammatory, while still technically following the rules. And…
I took advantage of every single one of them!
So, this post outlines my major mistakes. And you know what? I think a lot of other people make them too… it’s only natural, especially when overcoming sugar addiction, or jumping right from the heavily grain-based Standard American Diet.
I often wonder if these mistakes (aside from not sticking with it long enough) are the reason why the Autoimmune Protocol doesn’t work for someone. Kind of similar to when someone tells me they went gluten-free for a month, only to find out that all they did was switch to gluten-free junk food. Same sort of thing.
But, I have to give myself a little bit of credit, because I didn’t fail completely. There are some things I think I did well (which I mention at the end of this post), and that might be the reason why despite all of these mistakes, I still experienced massive relief in a short amount of time.
By the way, I’ve had two runs with the AIP diet. The majority of the mistakes below were all made during my first go at it. I went into the second time with a totally different mindset and the elimination phase of the diet (before reintroducing foods) was so much easier for me. I didn’t feel deprived at all except in the chocolate department. Once you’ve tasted carob, you know what I mean.
Anyways, on to the mistakes…
7 Major Mistakes I Made While on the AIP Diet
There are so many ways to get in trouble with mindset when it comes to a strict diet, and for me, it started with focusing on what I couldn’t eat, rather than what I could eat. The first time I went on the AIP diet, I was already on (what I thought was) a restricted diet – gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and somewhat corn-free.
I could still enjoy my gluten-free bread, pasta, peanut butter, chocolate chips, cereal, etc. Life was good. Until the AIP diet stripped away all joy in my life.
Just kidding. See how that mindset can totally ruin the mood?
Look, I’m not saying it’s been easy to do this, but at some point, I had to realize food was nourishment for my body. Very simple. And if I wanted to get well, then I needed to appreciate all the healing foods available to me, rather than holding on to and sulking over all the foods I couldn’t eat.
Let me tell you – there are a ton of healing foods.
Sometimes, that food doesn’t taste all that great (like beets and cilantro aka soil and soap). Sometimes, though… actually MOST times, it tastes amazing. Especially once your taste buds adjust to all the new flavors and textures. My palette has gone from only knowing grain and sugar to now appreciating the intense and complex flavors of real God-given, nourishing food.
But, that only happened once I accepted my new healing foods with open arms, saying “You might sound gross and weird right now, but my body needs you so get into my belly!!”
The Autoimmune Protocol allows for small amounts of nutritive sugar sources – like raw honey and maple syrup.
Well, I took that “small amount” of sugar and turned it into a massive amount of sugar. That’s how Frank and I went through two pounds of honey when we first tried the AIP diet. TWO POUNDS!!! In one month – actually more like 3 weeks! We were eating it by the spoonful. And that doesn’t even include all the other high-sugar ingredients we used for cooking our food.
Sugar is one of the most inflammatory substances we consume regularly – this is the exact opposite of what I was supposed to be doing.
We were obviously dealing with sugar addiction and massive sugar cravings as a result. But, I have to say something here, and maybe it’s a bit controversial, but…
I don’t think the low-sugar part of the AIP diet is emphasized enough.
I realized this once I rented The Wahls Protocol cookbook from the library and saw just how much Dr. Wahls emphasized low sugar in all of her recipes. The vast majority of them don’t even include it and if they do… the amount is so tiny, you can barely taste it. You might as well not even add it.
Many of the AIP recipes found in cookbooks, online, Pinterest, are high in sugar using large amounts of ingredients like coconut aminos (some brands have more sugar than others), dates/dried fruits, honey, maple syrup, and bananas & other high-sugar fruits.
Of course, I am eternally grateful for all those cooks and bakers out there giving us so many unique and fun recipes, especially during the holidays when we are missing out on some of the more traditional foods. I deeply appreciate them, and I don’t ever want them to stop!! Please don’t ever stop!
BUT, it’s really easy to only make those recipes. To only make the sweet treats and eat those all day just because they fall into compliance. It’s like a free pass to still eat junk, just in disguise because it’s dressed up in Tigernut flour, rather than grain-based flours. It also doesn’t help that many of the store-bought AIP compliant snacks are loaded with sugar, too.
The blame for eating too much sugar, though, still falls on me, which leads me to the next mistake.
3. I did not fully understand the reasoning behind the protocol.
Since the AIP diet is growing in popularity, it’s really easy to find the list of compliant/non-compliant foods and start the diet right away just based on the list.
That’s how I got myself in the sugar conundrum. I bet if I read Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s “The Paleo Approach” from beginning to end, I would’ve taken on a whole new appreciation for the diet, and focused way more on nutrient density. (If you don’t have that book, you need to get it!)
The fact is – I had a general(ish) idea of why I was removing the foods I was removing… because, you know, they’re inflammatory in some way (or something). But, I couldn’t give you a clear answer if you were to ever ask me.
My lack of understanding immediately set me up for a weak foundation, and therefore a weak follow-through in terms of nutrient density… which produced less than stellar results for gut health and reducing inflammation.
Similar to my sugar ordeal, and lack of focus on nutrient density, it’s really easy to overlook the necessary consumption of vegetables on this diet. I loaded up on all non-vegetable foods every day, which included various amounts of baked goods, sweet potato chips, fruit, and some sort of protein.
Once again, had I researched this diet and gained an understanding BEFORE starting it, I may have fared better… but then again, sugar addiction is powerful. And so is anti-vegetablism.
Now, after discovering Dr. Brooke Goldner’s insanely-high-veggie, raw vegan protocol and learning more about The Wahls Protocol, I noticed both diets emphasize a large number of vegetable servings daily (9-12). AND… both diets give phenomenal results for people living with autoimmune disease.
Eventually, it clicked for me. Veggies are *key* and the majority of my plate should be filled with them. Once I adopted this thinking, which was only very recent, I noticed a major shift in how I felt. In a good way.
(This might not be the case for everyone, though. I know of some people who do not tolerate a high amount of vegetables, or cannot tolerate them raw but that is usually a sign something underlying is out of whack, which can be addressed by working with a qualified practitioner.)
5. I tried to find alternatives to everything I was used to eating.
You know what I spent a lot of time doing? Trying to see if I could make some sort of AIP bagel and cream cheese alternative (by the way, the cream cheese alternative is totally possible using coconut milk and probiotics).
I also searched all over for recipes that mimicked the Standard American Diet: AIP ice cream recipes. AIP bread. AIP soft pretzels. AIP French fries. AIP pasta. AIP pizza. And then we made all those recipes. ALL OF THEM. We even invented a few ourselves.
You get the picture, right? Now that I’ve explained the sugar mistake, the vegetable mistake, and this one… can you see how easy it is to manipulate this diet into something it’s not intended to be?
As I said before, there is nothing wrong with these recipes, and I really love having them available, especially for those of us who follow this diet long term, but… they are intended for moderation. Like… really really moderate.
I completely missed the mark. My focus was on all the wrong things. I was more interested in fulfilling my cravings and taste buds, rather than healing my body.
But, what’s worse is that many of these mistakes led to another big one…
6. I made it all so complicated.
In my quest to have my egg-free cake and eat it too (literally), and fulfill every single one of my cravings, I created an abundance of unnecessary stress.
On top of it, I was fearful we would feel deprived from “fun” (aka junk) foods, so I strived to make every meal exciting and full of exotic flavors. I thought it would act as encouragement to stay on the diet.
I’m not saying that exciting meals are a bad thing. I do think they can be helpful when you’re trying to get a whole family on board. And it is a fun date night type of thing to make a meal together.
But, there’s a downside to having these types of gourmet meals (and snacks) every single day:
- They require a ton of prep and multiple steps
- Some require unique (and possibly expensive/large) kitchen tools
- Expensive ingredients (which resulted in smaller portions so we didn’t go over budget… which then resulted in very little to no leftovers)
- Lots of clean up
- Really intense meal planning and grocery list making
- And then… waking up and having to do it all over again. You feel like you are living in your kitchen all day long.
But, there are simpler ways! Cheaper ways! We discovered them once we tried the AIP diet a second time because we were forced to – we had two busy kids (who also needed to eat), a strict budget, and not a ton of time.
This diet is totally possible for even the busiest of people. Meal planning. Batch cooking. A variety of sauces (this is the secret, I’m telling you). Doubling up recipes. Simplifying snacks. It’s all possible, friend.
7. I failed to listen to my body during ALL phases of the diet.
The AIP diet is an elimination diet, meant to eliminate all potentially inflammatory foods, add healing foods so you can heal, and then once you’re in a good spot – reintroduce foods and gauge your body’s signs and symptoms to see if you’re sensitive to said foods.
I think though, there’s a lot to be learned about your body BEFORE reintroducing foods (aka during the elimination phase). Some of us though, like me, ignore it because… well, it’s probably not on our minds if we are “following the rules.” Plus, we are all rushing through this phase so we can finally get to the point where we start expanding our diet.
So, for example, I’ve always noticed my nose itches tremendously after fried or overly-roasted foods (I like my Brussels sprouts nice and crispy). Intense nose itching, and sometimes, I get hit with extreme fatigue within minutes of eating these foods.
I know this happened to me during my first trial with the AIP diet, but I ignored it… probably because I didn’t want to have to restrict my diet any further (there’s the mindset mistake kicking in). I even ignored it the second time I followed strict AIP, even though it became more and more obvious. Once again, I didn’t want to give up those foods.
It wasn’t until I completely eliminated fried and roasted foods (due to inspiration from Dr. Brooke Goldner’s Goodbye Lupus dietary protocol), that I really felt a difference.
In fact, the month I stopped eating fried and roasted foods was also the same month my thyroid experienced major healing, requiring me to lower my dose of thyroid medication (but, I was also doing a few other things, so it’s hard to say what caused what.)
My point here is that all phases of the autoimmune protocol, from the most strict to the least, can reveal something about your body. And if you practice on keeping the focus on your body, rather than getting all caught up in my above mistakes, you’ll learn something. Probably multiple things.
Consider your body your pal in this… you give it what it needs, listen to the signs it gives you, and respond accordingly. In return, it will heal itself, because that’s what it so desperately wants to do. It’s also really, really good at it once it has the right tools.
Okay, so… that’s how I bombed the AIP diet, especially the first time. My focus was all in the wrong places, my mindset and cravings crippled my progress, and I did not fully understand the concept of incorporating the most nutrient dense foods into my diet, which resulted in way too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and super complicated meals.
But, there were some things I got right (at least for my situation):
Three things I did that were NOT mistakes.
1. I jumped right in.
I decided to start this diet in September, spent a month planning for it (meal plans, grocery lists, budget, etc.) and then hit the Start button in October – COLD TURKEY.
There was no gradual phase-in. I was really desperate to get the show on the road, and I felt like a gradual phase-in was just prolonging the inevitable.
Of course, this isn’t the right path for everyone. Some people do need a gradual phase-in, dropping foods one by one, and that is okay! Autoimmune healing is a marathon, not a sprint. You do you.
But for me, the cold turkey path was the way to go, because I knew that a slower approach only prolonged the painful elimination of all my beloved foods.
2. Not cheating.
It is SO IMPORTANT NOT TO CHEAT. Not even once. Not even the tiniest, little crumb. Not even taking a bite, chewing it up, and spitting it out! Frank did that one time.
This is something I understood right from the beginning, which is probably one of the driving forces behind some of my mistakes. I figured if I could manipulate the diet into what I wanted, then my chances of eating non-compliant foods were greatly reduced. In a sense, it worked – I never did “cheat”.
But, I know how easy it IS to cheat, especially around the holidays or social gatherings. Your mind does the craziest things to convince you to cave.
DON’T DO IT!
I really want to emphasize this point because I think it’s overlooked. Cheating totally defeats the purpose… but also carries a lot of risk. Dr. Terry Wahls does a perfect job explaining it in her book “The Wahls Protocol” (which is a slightly different diet, but still along the same lines as AIP):
“What’s wrong with a little cheat? A cheat day here and there? Taking it “easy”? Every time someone with an autoimmune disease experiences a flare of symptoms (this could happen due to environmental exposures, toxins, overtraining, stress, physical trauma, or eating a food to which the person is intolerant), inflammation levels increase.
Much of the work we do with the Wahls Protocol is about decreasing excessive inflammation because inflammation causes damage. With every inflammatory flare, you increase the damage to your cells, which leads to the release of substances that further disorder your immune cell response. Then your innate and adaptive immune systems trigger ever-increasing levels of inflammation, more auto-antibodies, and worsening destruction with each successive exposure. This can trigger the development of damage that is so severe it becomes irreversible.
You may even pick up a new auto-antibody that attacks different cellular structures. As a result, you can acquire additional autoimmune disease(s) in the process. For this reason, you may not be able to regain the previous level you were at before your dietary indiscretions.”
I can vouch from personal experience, that even just a bite of something your body doesn’t agree with can send you into a flare for months at a time. It happened to me over and over again, until I dug deeper and finally reintroduced more foods without flaring. You can read more about how I did that in this blog post:
3. I realized there is more to healing than just diet.
There are some people out there who can completely reverse their autoimmune disease just by changing their diet. Sometimes, it’s even a simple change, like just eliminating gluten. How amazing is that?
I am jealous of those people, because I am not one of them.
I also cringe when people lose hope in healing because a specific diet didn’t work for them. Of course, it’s easy to think that when you hear all these raving autoimmune success stories from just diet alone. It makes you feel like: “If the diet that worked for everyone else didn’t work for me, then nothing is going to work.”
That cannot be farther from the truth.
Autoimmune disease is so complex. We are all different. A diet is a tool, not necessarily the cure. Do I think everyone should use diet as a tool? YES! Of course, it’s one of the biggest, most impactful workhorses at our disposal and should always be part of a healing strategy. But it is not everything.
As I was pursuing the AIP diet, or any diet change for that matter, I also simultaneously pursued other healing modalities – acupuncture, chiropractic care, functional medicine and testing, supplements, homeopathy, stress reduction (this is huge), emotional healing, mindfulness, decluttering, building my relationship with God, providing service to others, rekindling my love for nature and being outside… the list is long, and it’s going to look different for everyone.
Some of these things provided results a diet could not. And complete healing of mind, body, and spirit is not possible from just one thing alone.
BUT, the food we eat is still a very important part of healing, so… if you’re ready to embark on an autoimmune diet journey, or you’re already there and struggling a little bit like we did, then click below to read one of our most popular posts:
Have you tried the Autoimmune Protocol diet? If so, did you make any of the same mistakes, or some others of your own? Share by leaving a comment below!
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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. Consider me, and my husband, Frank, your autoimmune disease health coaches. Are you ready?!