A clean, whole-foods diet is all about getting back to the basics. It’s about eating the foods that have nourished our species for hundreds of thousands of years instead of the processed, shrink-wrapped, and boxed food derivatives that have lined our grocery store shelves for the past century. It’s about synthesizing science and common sense when we plan and prep our meals instead of mindlessly reaching for that cardboard box in the pantry. With obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease all on the rise, it’s no secret that convenient, nutrient-poor food has contributed to a serious health crisis. While risks like genetics and certain environmental factors might be beyond our control, our diets and lifestyles can go a long way toward making up the difference.
Paleo is an excellent template to start with and can improve the health of your hormones, immune system, glucose tolerance, gut microflora, but for some chronic and/or serious health conditions, Paleo alone isn’t enough. There are many Paleo-approved foods that may need to be eliminated because they have been shown to aggravate the immune system, take advantage of leaky gut and gut dysbiosis, or are common allergens. These foods include eggs, nightshades, nuts and seeds, alcohol, and added sugars (even nutritive ones). By eliminating these foods, the autoimmune protocol aims to meet the nutrient needs of human biology without putting any undue stress on our damaged digestive and immune systems. That puts the focus on nutrient-dense foods like meat, seafood, vegetables, and the occasional servings of fruit.
Foods to Eliminate on the AIP
- All non-Paleo foods (grains, legumes, dairy, processed oils, non-nutritive sugars, and food additives)
- Nuts and seeds (including cocoa, coffee, spices, and all other products derived from them)
- Nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers of all kinds, goji berries, ashwagandha, and all other products derived from them)
- Nutritive Sweeteners (except in extreme moderation, like for special occasions only)
- NSAIDs (including aspirin and ibuprofen)
- More than 20g of fructose per day (fruit is the highest source of fructose on the autoimmune protocol)
- Yeast (those with gluten sensitivities may cross-react with it)
Why are These Foods Eliminated on the AIP?
Lectins and Saponins. Lectins are sugar-binding proteins that are found in plants and animals. While most lectins are harmless, some lectins have a unique makeup that allows them to freely pass through the cell walls of the intestine. On their way through, these proteins can damage or destroy our cells, leaving a weakened barrier that allows other foreign proteins to enter the bloodstream. The immune system forms antibodies to flush these invading proteins out, but often catches the body’s own similarly-structured proteins in the crossfire. As if that wasn’t bad enough, saponins in these foods act as a stimulant, pushing the immune system into overdrive. As a result, long-term consumption of foods containing these lectins and saponins can lead to chronic inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune disease. The intestinal damage alone can take as long as nine months to heal. Very few health problems can’t be improved by avoiding the lectins found primarily in grains and legumes.
Phytate. Phytate, also known as phytic acid, hinders the activity of the essential digestive enzymes that enable us to absorb the minerals from food we ingest, which can lead to mineral deficiency and slower digestion.
Lysozyme. Eggs contain an acid- and heat-resistant enzyme called lysozyme, which breaks down the cell membranes of certain bacteria. Lysozyme is also present in human saliva and mucous as a defense mechanism against bacterial infections. However, the lysozyme in eggs binds to other egg proteins as well as any bacterial proteins it encounters as it travels through the digestive tract. These lysozyme complexes resist digestion and maintain a positive charge that allows them to pass through even a healthy gut membrane and into the bloodstream. With the bacterial proteins in tow, these lysozyme complexes can cause inflammation, allergies, or other symptoms of immune-system stress as the body attempts to get rid of the out-of-place egg and bacterial proteins.
Capsaicin. The lectins and saponins in nightshades, a family of plants that includes tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant, have also been shown to enter the bloodstream. In addition, nightshades contain capsaicin, another chemical that stimulates the immune system. Capsaicin is what makes peppers spicy and gives pepper spray its punch. It irritates the gut lining as much as the eyes or skin, causing inflammation, indigestion, and poor mineral absorption. It has also been shown to dampen nerve impulses, which can lead to slower cognition and coordination and worsen certain connective-tissue or nervous-system injuries or diseases. As a result, even healthy individuals may show symptoms such as bloating or joint pain when consuming nightshades. According to Dr. Ballantyne, nightshades are second only to gluten in their ability to cause long-term health problems and even healthy individuals should consume them with caution.
Alcohol. In addition to having an intact cell membrane and neutral immune activity, a healthy gut is populated with probiotics that help digest food and combat any foreign bacteria that are ingested. Many foods upset the balance between good and bad bacteria, leading to dysbiosis and poor digestion. Alcohol is one such food. While chronic alcohol consumption can damage the gut significantly enough to cause hemorrhage, even a single drink has been shown to create gaps in the intestinal barrier. In addition, the sugars in alcohol feed the bad bacteria, causing overgrowth. With more bad bacteria in the gut, bacterial proteins are more likely to leak into the bloodstream. Once there, these proteins can aggravate your liver while the alcohol itself leads to fatty liver disease.
Sugars. It is already well-known that dietary sugars can contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, and high fructose intake can damage the liver in much the same way high alcohol intake can. Ingesting sugar sets off a chain of hormones that results in increased fat storage and higher inflammation. Chronically high blood sugar leads to chronically high insulin levels, which together can contribute to brain and nerve damage, blindness, weight gain, certain cancers, imbalanced sex hormones like those seen in polycystic ovarian syndrome, and increased appetite. Whole foods like starchy vegetables and fruits can provide enough glucose to maintain good brain function while the fiber in these foods acts to increase insulin sensitivity, preventing dangerous blood sugar spikes and even reversing certain types of diabetes. On the other hand, the nutrient-poor sugars present in processed foods provide more sugar than the body can manage and produce byproducts like triglycerides. These build up and contribute to inflammation and disease.
Common Allergens. Although they haven’t yet been studied for their effects on intestinal permeability or immune dysfunction, common allergens like dairy, nuts, and seeds are suspected of contributing to or at least taking advantage of these problems. They have lower levels of lectins and phytate than grains, legumes, eggs, or nightshades, and moderate consumption is probably okay for healthy individuals. However, anyone with a compromised digestive or immune system is more likely to have or develop food allergies and sensitivities. Avoiding these common allergens in addition to foods high in anti-nutrients gives damaged digestive and immune systems time to heal. When symptoms have abated, these foods can be systematically reintroduced to see if they cause any problems on an individual basis.
So What Should I Eat?
Nutrient-dense Foods. The most nutrient-dense foods are those that offer the most micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) per calorie (energy derived from protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol). So you’re getting more bang for your buck when you choose these foods. While alcoholic beverages are very nutrient-poor because they are very low in vitamins and minerals while being high in calories, foods like organ meats, vegetables, and seafood are very nutrient-dense because, even if they are high-calorie, they are also very high-nutrient. Foods like kale are even more nutrient-dense because they are low-calorie and high-nutrient! All meats, organ meats, seafood, vegetables (aiming for 8-14 cups per day), high-quality fats, probiotic foods like fermented vegetables or kombucha, and fruit (careful not to exceed 20g of fructose per day) can and should be enjoyed freely.
Stress Management. When presented with a stressor, our bodies begin to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol’s job is to shut down functions that aren’t immediately needed (such as digestion, reproduction, and the immune system) to make sure your brain and muscles have all the resources they will need to escape the stressor. This response helps us survive when stressors are short-lived, but when you are dealing with chronic stress, all those shut-down “non-essential” functions can become big problems. Chronically elevated cortisol can affect our blood pressure, metabolism, immune system, digestion, sleep, and heart health. You might have had first-hand experience of getting sick, gaining weight, being unable to sleep, or suffering indigestion or decreased libido during times of stress. As a result, managing stress is an extremely important facet of health. Management techniques include meditation and practicing gratitude, avoiding caffeine and sugar, taking a five- or ten-minute break every hour to breathe deeply and stretch, and taking shorter, more-frequent vacations (like a weekend trip every other month instead of a two-week trip once a year).
Quality Sleep. Getting seven to ten hours of good-quality sleep every night is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Inadequate sleep for even one night can tank your hormones and immune system, leading to increased inflammation and susceptibility to illness, worsening of chronic health conditions, resistance to weight loss, insulin resistance, depression and other mood disorders, decreased mental performance, and increased coritsol levels (resulting in increased stress and lower resilience to stressors). Believe it or not, poor sleep increases your likelihood of getting sick or dying from any cause. Try avoiding caffeine after the early morning, sugars (even from fruit and alcohol) in the evening, and any food at all in the two hours before going to bed. Eat a large dinner about four hours before going to sleep, relying on starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes or plantains for carbohydrates. Your bedroom should be a cool, completely dark place with comfortable, breathable sheets and clothes. Bright, blue-spectrum lights should be avoided entirely after sunset because they mimic sunlight, telling your body it’s still daytime. Ambient noise like a ceiling fan, air filter, or white noise generator can help counteract things like traffic, animals, or neighbors that might otherwise keep you up.
Exercise. Most people think of exercise as merely a weight loss tool, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In the two previous sections, we’ve explored the ways just two hormones impact your health. Exercise, it turns out, is a great way to regulate all of them. It can strengthen not only your muscles and self-image, but also your immune system, bones, and joints. It can help regulate your appetite and metabolism (and thereby weight), improve insulin sensitivity, increase your energy, reduce your cortisol (as long as you don’t exercise too intensely or for too long), result in better sleep (if you don’t exercise too late in the day), and improve your mood. Even a liesurely walk is beneficial. Swimming is a good option for those with joint issues. Which particular exercise is best for you will depend on your personal health and goals, but exercise you actually enjoy is always preferred!
Sunlight. Vitamin D is a hormone that our bodies produce naturally when exposed to ultraviolet light. While too much sunlight is well-known to be detrimental, some sun exposure is not only beneficial, but essential. Vitamin D plays important roles in bone, immune, and hormone health. Sunlight also regulates our circadian rhythm, stimulating us in the morning when the sun is bright and sending “go to bed soon” signals to our brain in the evening when its setting. How much time you need to spend outside will vary depending on your skin tone, how much skin is exposed, time of day, local weather, time of year, and where you live. Get around 10-15 minutes of sun every day you can, but always be sure to go inside before you burn!
Socializing. Positive social interactions can boost production of hormones like oxytocin, which has a number of positive effects on your health. The most obvious benefit is reduced stress, knowing there are people you can count on in an emergency or time of need. In fact, oxytocin reduces cortisol secretion and encourages feelings of love, contentment, and relaxation while also reducing inflammation. On the other hand, not having some kind of social support network can lead not only to feelings of isolation and loneliness, but can actually increase your risk of morbidity and mortality just like stress, smoking, and inactivity. Whether it’s a game night with friends, watching a funny show with your family, socializing with your neighbors, going out with your colleagues, snuggling up to your partner, or just playing with your dog, try to do something that makes you and those around you smile or laugh every day.