Just over 2 years ago I started the AIP protocol on the advice of my nutritionist. I was in a bad way at the time, every day was a struggle both physically and mentally, so anything was worth a shot at that point. I thought I’ll give it a month and see how it goes, never intending for it to be a long term thing.
So what is the AIP protocol?
AIP stands for the Autoimmune Paleo protocol, it is not a diet for losing weight (although I did) its a lifestyle change to improve your health. The idea is to remove all inflammatory and reactionary foods from your diet, to eat fresh produce free from additives and preservatives, in order to heal your gut and support your immune system. Once you’re gut is healed sufficiently you can then reintroduce foods one by one back into your diet and assess which if any are reactionary for you. Its important to know that reactions to foods do not just cause symptoms in your gut but throughout your body too. So you may suffer from migraines after eating certain foods, or intensely itchy skin, or notice sinus problems or it may affect you emotionally and mentally. Certain thing are not intended to be reintroduced such as additives, preservatives, processed sugars, etc as they contain no nutritional value. As well as what you eat its important to focus on the quality of what you eat also, so organic meats and vegetables wherever possible, wild fish rather than farmed.
What can you eat?
So the good news is you can eat all of the ingredients below. Seems like plenty of choice right? Now take a look at the list of ingredients you can’t eat and try not to cry!
Organ Meats/Meat/Poultry – Bone broth, Heart, Kidney, Liver, Tongue, Beef, Chicken, Lamb, Mutton, Pork, Turkey, Wild Game
Fish/Shellfish – Anchovies, Cod, Halibut, Herring, Mackerel, Salmon, Sardines, Sea Bass, Snapper, Tilipia, Trout, Tuna, Clams, Crab, Crawfish, Lobster, Mussels, Octopus, Oysters, Prawns, Scallops, Shrimp, Squid. This list is by no means exhaustive, most fish or shellfish is good but try and steer clear of farmed fish wherever possible.
Sea Vegetables – Arame, Dulse, Kombu, Nori, Wakame
Vegetables – Arrowroot, Artichokes, Arugula, Asparagus, Beets, Beet greens, Bok Choy, Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, Cabbage, Capers, Carrots, Carrot tops, Cassava, (tapioca/yuca), Cauliflower, Celery, Collard greens, Courgette (zucchini), Cucumber, Dandelion greens, Endive, Herbs, Jicama, Kale, Kohlrabi, Lettuce, Mustard Greens, Okra, Pumpkins, Radish, Radish greens, Radicchio, Salsafy, Spinach, Squash, Swede (rutabaga, neep), Sweet potato, Swiss chard, Taro, Turnip, Turnip greens, Watercress, Yams.
Alliums – Chives, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Scallions, Shallots, Spring onions
Olives/High fat fruits – Avocados, Olives, Coconuts
Fruit – Apples, Apricots, Bananas, Blackberries, Blueberries, Cherries, Clementines, Cranberries, Currants, Dates, Figs, Gooseberries, Grapefruit, Grapes, Kiwis, Lemons, Limes, Mandarin oranges, Mango, Melon, Nectarines, Oranges, Papaya, Peaches, Pears, Pineapple, Plantain, Plums, Pomegranates, Pomelo, Raspberries, Strawberries
Oils/Fats – Animal fats (duck fat, pork fat, etc), Avocado oil, Coconut oil, Olive oil
Natural Sugars – Blackstrap, Coconut, Honey, Maple (natural only), Molasses. Limit your intake of these, they should only be used occasionally and in small quantities.
What can’t you eat?
When I first saw this list I thought this is impossible, there is nothing left to eat! I found it best to concentrate on the list of foods you could eat and start coming up with recipes, rather than dwelling on what I could no longer have.
Alcohol – Beer, Wine (okay for cooking), spirits
Grains/Grasses – Barley, Corn, Durum, Fonio, Job’s tears, Kamut, Millet, Oats, Rice, Rye, Sorghum, Spelt, Teff, Triticale, Wheat (all varieties), Wild Rice
Grainlike Seeds – Amaranth, Buckwheat, Chia, Quinoa
Dairy – Butter, Buttermilk, Butter oil, Cheese, Cottage cheese, Cream, Curds, Dairy protein isolates, Ghee, Ice cream, Kefir, Milk, Sour cream, Whey, Whey protein isolate, Yoghurt
Legumes – Adzuki beans, Black beans, Black-eyed peas, Butter beans, Calico beans, Cannellini beans, Chickpeas (garbanzo beans), Broad beans (fava beans), Great northern beans, Green beans, Italian beans, Kidney beans, Lentils, Lima beans, Mung beans, Navy beans, Peanuts, Peas, Pinto beans, Runner beans, Split peas, Soybeans (edamame, tofu, tempeh, all soy products, soy isolates, soy lecithin)
Processed Vegetable Oils – Canola oil (rapeseed oil), Corn oil, Cottonseed oil, Palm kernel oil, Peanut oil, Safflower oil, Soybean oil, Sunflower oil
Processed Food/Chemicals – Acrylamides, Artificial food colour, Autolyzed protein, Brominated vegetable oil, Emulsifiers (carrageenan, cellulose gum, guar gum, lecithin, xanthan gum), Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, Monosodium Glutamate, Natural flavours, Nitrates & Nitrites (naturally occurring ones are ok), Olestra, Phosphoric acid, Propylene glycol, Textured vegetable protein, Trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil), yeast extract, anything that has a chemical name or you don’t know what it is.
Sugars/Sweeteners/Substitutes – Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame K), Agave, Agave nectar, Aspartame, Barley malt, Barley malt syrup, Brown rice syrup, Brown sugar, Cane crystals, Cane sugar (refined), Caramel, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, Corn syrup solids, Crystalline fructose, Dehydrated cane juice, Demerara sugar, Dextrin, Dextrose, Diastatic malt, Erythritol, Evaporated cane juice, Fructose, Fruit juice, Fruit juice concentrate, Galactose, Glucose, Glucose solids, Golden syrup, High-fructose corn syrup, Invert sugar, Inulin, Lactose, Malt Syrup, Maltodextrin, Maltose, Mannitol, Monk fruit (luo han guo), Noetame, Panela, Panocha, Refined sugar, Rice bran syrup, Saccharin, Sorbitol, Stevia, Sucralose, Sucrose (saccharose), Syrup, Treacle, Turbinado sugar, Xylitol, Yacon Syrup
Nuts/Seeds – Almonds, Brazil nuts, Cashews, Chestnuts, Flax seeds, Hazelnuts, Hemp seeds, Macadamia nuts, Pecans, Pine nuts, Pistachios, Poppy seeds, Pumpkin seeds, Sesame seeds, Sunflower seeds, Walnuts. Any flours, butters, oils or other products derived from nuts or seeds.
Nightshades/Spices derived from Nightshades – Ashwagandha, Aubergine (eggplant), Bell peppers (sweet peppers), Cayenne peppers, Cape Gooseberries (physalis), Garden huckleberries (regular huckleberries are ok), Goji berries, Hot peppers (chili peppers & chili-based spices), Naranjillas, Paprika, Pepinos, Pimentos, Potatoes (not sweet potatoes, which are ok), Tamarillos, Tomatillos, Tomatoes. Some curry powders contain nightshades so please check them.
Spices derived from Seeds – Anise, Annatto, Black Caraway (russian caraway, black cumin), Celery seed, Coriander seed, Cumin, Dill, Fennel seed, Fenugreek, Mustard, Nutmeg. Celery leaf, Coriander leaf, Dill fronds, Fennel fronds, Mustard greens are all ok.
How hard could it be?
Lets face it, it was only going to be for a month I could cope, I was already coeliac so how hard could it be! Well it turns out it could be pretty hard. The first 2 weeks I had such bad cravings for sugary foods it was unreal, I didn’t eat that much sugar in the first place so why were the cravings so bad?! It wasn’t until trying the AIP protocol that I realised how many foods sugar is hidden in. You think sugar, you think cakes, sweets, desserts, etc, you don’t necessarily think stock cubes, sauces, bacon, sausages, cured meats, bread, etc. But sure enough its there! I was constantly hungry thanks to the cravings, even though I was now eating twice as much as before. I was contemplating giving up at this point, and then I started to notice a few things. For the first time in over 20 years I was starting to sleep more regularly, after suffering from pretty bad insomnia where some nights I barely got an hours sleep, and I rarely slept before 4am I suddenly wanted to go to bed before Duncan and I could actually go to sleep pretty much as soon as my head hit the pillow, this was a revelation for me!! As a result I started to find I had a little more energy than before. By the end of the first month my digestive problems had started to improve, I didn’t have debilitating cramps and bouts of unexplained diarrhoea (sorry TMI) constantly. So rather than giving up at the end of the first month I decided I’d give it another month. This pattern continued for the next few months, I slept better and better, I felt more energised than I had in years as a result I could think more clearly, my daily digestive issues pretty much disappeared, my emotional state was vastly improved. I added in digestive enzymes and probiotics to help my gut, I added in Omega 3s to help with inflammation and I changed some of my existing supplements to better quality ones, with no nasty fillers. I’d already been taking vitamin D topically as taking it orally had had no effect for over 2 years, despite dosage increases, my nutritionist advised increasing it even more as studies have shown improvements for those with autoimmune disease who are able to have an optimal Vitamin D level.
It wasn’t perfect by any means and I was nowhere near back to normal but it was a huge improvement and at a level I felt I could manage, rather than feeling like I was barely existing.
At about the 5 – 6 month mark I started to think about re-introducing foods. I started off slow, with one ingredient at a time. Some people follow a set order others prefer to try things they miss the most first. I must admit I did a little of both. Some of the first things I tried are chocolate ( I was still missing the convenience of sweet things at this point), pepper, rice, egg yolks (I already knew that egg whites were a problem for me prior to the AIP protocol), potatoes, spices, seeds, nuts. Chocolate was a definite no unfortunately, as were egg yolks. For awhile I thought pepper was also a problem but it turned out I’d been making truffles and AIP cereal bars using carob instead of chocolate and it just happened to be on these days I’d had pepper also. I’d never eaten carob before and assumed because it wasn’t on the no foods list it wouldn’t be a problem, how wrong I was, the stomach cramps were horrendous to the point of feeling like I was going to pass out, hot and cold sweats, it was nearly on a par with a coeliac reaction for me. Once I figured this out and stopped eating carob, it became obvious that pepper had never been the problem. Its good to note that even if a food is on the “yes” list, if you’ve never eaten it before, don’t just start eating loads of it, try a little first! Spices and seeds turned out to be fine, which opened back up a whole load of flavours and recipes for me. Potatoes no problem and rice, or so I thought. Shortly after reintroducing these I started to feel unwell and ended up with food poisoning at which point my nutritionist ordered a whole load of tests for bacterial levels in my gut, parasites, infections, antibody levels, etc. Not only did they show that I had food poisoning but that my Gliadin antibodies were elevated. Now I definitely hadn’t eaten any gluten as I’m very strict with this because my reactions are so severe. So my gliadin antibodies should definitely not have been elevated. We took a look at what I’d eaten as there are certain foods that do not contain gluten that can trigger a reaction as the protein structures are similar enough that your immune system often recognises it as gluten and reacts accordingly. There are 6 such foods, dairy, oats, corn, millet, rice and yeast. I’d already discovered I couldn’t tolerate oats a couple of years previous, so the only other food that I had eaten that was on the list was rice. To say I was gutted about this was an understatement, I love rice, its such an easy replacement for those of us who are gluten free, I used to eat a lot of it. No wonder I felt like shit constantly, if my body was recognising rice as gluten! I was even more gutted about this than chocolate believe it or not!! After this I eased off the reintroduction for awhile to let my system recover again. By the end of month 9 I no longer needed the digestive enzymes, I was only taking one probiotic, I’d successfully reintroduced all nightshades. Which made life so much easier being able to eat tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, peppercorn, aubergine, peppers, etc. Since then I’ve slowly reintroduced other things, but I’ve been cautious about when I’ll try new stuff, it can’t be when I’m working as I can’t risk a major reaction when I’m self employed. I don’t think its a bad thing having taken it so slowly as its given me a chance to fully assess each new item without the temptation to keep trying something every few days and then be confused as to what is causing a particular reaction.
Yes alcohol gets its own section! Other than sugar this is probably the hardest thing to give up. And maybe thats because it contains so much sugar anyway. I didn’t miss this instantly unlike the sugar, as I a rarely drank at home anyway. Initially I did miss it when going to friends for dinner, but now that doesn’t even register for me. But the times I missed it the most were going to something that had a large amount of people, such as a bbq, party or to the pub. I’m not sure now if it was actually the alcohol itself I missed or the fact that it helped me take the edge off of the sensory overload of these situations, such as the noises, smells, heat, etc. I tried on several occasions to reintroduce different alcohols as I thought maybe its just the beer or the wine, maybe spirits will be fine. Wine definitely had a very visible affect as well as an emotional toll, after about a year of no alcohol with only having tried a gf beer once or twice with no success, I went to a wine tasting. I was very strict and only tasted and spat the rest. Nevertheless, I woke up the next day feeling like shit, my sinuses were so painful it felt like I’d been punched in the face, to my horror my husband confirmed that it also looked like I’d been punched as all around my nose and eyes were swollen! This pain lasted 10 days and throughout that whole time I was very fatigued and felt very low emotionally. Ok so wine was a definite no, maybe it was the histamines, maybe it was the sugar but either way I wasn’t interested in giving it another go. So that was beer ruled out because of the potential cross reaction with the grains, wine because of the intense sinus reaction. Maybe spirits would be ok, as long as I used a mixer with only natural sugars. On a couple of different occasions I tried a gin & tonic, initially with just a normal schweppes tonic and then with fevertree tonic with just fruit sugars, the second was definitely better than the first but I suddenly realised something that I hadn’t before, whilst none of the alcohol I’d tried to reintroduce had caused any digestive symptoms, for at least a week after each trial I’d had a severe mood drop each time. And I’m not talking about feeling a little low, but actually verging on feeling suicidal, switching from uncontrollable crying to having absolutely no interest in anything, being completely disassociated from everything and everyone. This scared me and at this point I decided drinking was not worth it for me. I didn’t ever want to feel like that again. It then dawned on me that throughout my years of illness, this was a constant feeling I’d battled. Which isn’t uncommon with those suffering from chronic autoimmune illnesses, but if alcohol was a trigger for this side of my autoimmune illnesses then I needed to put it firmly on the “No” list. Now it rarely bothers me when I go out that I’m not drinking, even in noisy situations. It tends to bother others more than it bothers me, a lot of people can’t understand that you’d choose not to drink. But then again if you’d have told me 2 years ago that I’d have chosen not to drink, I’d have laughed my ass off too!
Whats the Verdict?
For me the AIP protocol has been a life changer. So I’d definitely say its worth it. But maybe not for everyone, as its pretty extreme. I’d definitely advise anyone who has autoimmune conditions, chronic illnesses, digestive problems, allergies or mental health problems to seriously consider it. Maybe those who don’t suffer from any of these, but want to lead a healthier lifestyle might consider the Paleo protocol which is less limiting but still very healthy and nutrient dense. The key in all of it for me is to avoid those things that have no nutritional benefit, and to focus on those that are rich in nutrients.
Want to try AIP?
My advise for anyone who decides to try the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol is to plan, plan & plan before you even start. So first pick a date to start, don’t just think I’ll start it tomorrow or on Monday because chances are something will crop up and you’ll postpone it. As I turned 40 I had a busy couple of months, with holidays booked, meals and parties lined up with set menus that I’d already committed to, so I picked 2 days after the last event I had planned, obviously I’d need a recovery day after the annual girls night out! From the day you decide to try the AIP protocol to the day you actually start, familiarise yourself with the foods you can and can’t have, research recipes, write a meal plan for at least a month and write your shopping lists. Make sure the house is well stocked with items that are on the “yes” list and prepare meals and snacks in advance. Don’t leave the house without a snack if you’re going to be out for a few hours, as you’ll find it nigh on impossible to find anything suitable in the shops! A great place to find AIP recipes is pinterest, if you want further information on the paleo or the AIP protocol head over to thepaleomom this site was recommended to me by my nutritionist and I found it absolutely invaluable. Once you’ve started the protocol, stick with it, its definitely worth the initial pain. Don’t be tempted to re-introduce things too soon or too quickly, leave at least a week between introducing each item so you can be sure what you’re reacting to if you do have a reaction. The hunger and the cravings for the sweet things do pass in fact you’ll find your tastebuds change after awhile and if you do inadvertently have something that has sugar in it several months down the line you’ll know instantly and find it sickly sweet!
Over the next few months I hope to add some recipes of my own to help those of you who are just starting out. If you want to share any of your recipes with me please do!