All About the AIP Diet: What it is and Why I’m On It

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About a year ago, my husband was struggling with some seemingly random and unrelated health issues—all relatively minor, but still annoying for him and worrying for me. I was doing some research about dietary solutions to his issues (because, hi, I’m a food blogger), and during one Google search, I stumbled onto the Autoimmune Protocol Diet (or AIP for short).

At the time, I looked at the list of what you couldn’t eat (which, let’s be honest, was pretty much EVERYTHING we ate—beans, tomatoes, grains, seeds, nuts), and immediately thought, “Psh. That’s crazy. That’s too restrictive. That will never do.” And my husband agreed. His health problems weren’t that scary to try a diet that felt so drastic.

Fast forward to August of this year, and I’m so sick I can barely make it from the bed to the bathroom. I’m in and out of the hospital and doctor’s offices and have enough blood drawn to stock a blood bank. And no one can figure out what is wrong with me. The only thing every health care professional could agree on: I have some sort of infectious process that is wreaking havoc on my body and they have no idea how to treat it.

And then I saw a naturopath, and his very first suggestion to me was to cut out all grains (not just gluten). I scoffed. Like audibly (embarassingly) scoffed in his office. Whole grains were a staple of my (mostly plant-based) diet! I eat healthy! I can’t give up grains!

He countered that for some folks, whole grains are healthy, but with my body and immune system in such rough shape, removing anything that even might be causing more inflammation couldn’t hurt. There are plenty of vegetables which can give you the whole grain fiber you need. Which seemed like sane logic, but my farro-loving heart was still über skeptical.

And then I read a book that suggested the same thing. And then another book. And then I mentioned it to my family doctor, and she told me it’s worth a shot, because grains can be really tricky to digest for some folks. And then I saw a different naturopath who suggested that not only do I cut out all grains, but that I also try eating a high-fat diet to help boost my immune system.

And that’s when I realized that, okay, maybe I should actually look into this whole grain-free lifestyle thing a bit more. I was hearing it from too many different sources to just write it off as hogwash. So I started doing my own research. And I started to realize there was some evidence-based foundation to these suggestions I had been hearing.

At this point, I was so sick, I could barely choke down a slice of dry toast a day, so honestly, I was ready to try anything. Cutting out bread certainly wasn’t going to make anything worse. So I dove in and cut out all grains (gluten and non-gluten ones) on August 29, 2017.

A crazy thing started happening: I started to feel better. Not 100% better, not even 10% better, but a half percent there, a quarter percent here—which after weeks and weeks of feeling progressively worse every day felt like a damn miracle.

About this time is when I remembered the AIP diet. I went back and read it again, and suddenly, it didn’t feel so restrictive. You know what’s restrictive? Feeling so nauseous that it takes you two hours to eat a handful of dry Cheerios. Comparatively, not being able to eat tomatoes or cashews didn’t really feel like that big of a deal. I read an encyclopedic, research-based book (honestly, it’s more like a textbook) by Sarah Ballantyne called The Paleo Approach that really outlines the AIP protocol. And I started to realize that going “full AIP” might be worth it. My doctors weren’t giving me any answers, so it was time I took my healing into my own hands. What did I have to lose? I dove face-first into AIP on September 10, 2017.

So what exactly is the AIP Diet?

The AIP Diet is a short term, therapeutic diet that removes foods that most commonly cause adverse reactions in people. These kinds of reactions can range from extremely severe (like going into anaphylaxis after eating peanuts) to extremely minor (like your skin itching a little bit after you eat kiwis). More often than not, the reactions are so minor that we don’t even notice them—or if we do notice them, don’t attribute them to the food we are eating.

Which sounds not so bad. I mean, a minor reaction, what’s the big deal? Well, one of my naturopaths put it this way—your immune system is like a cup. And so you fill up your cup a little bit with a food reaction. And then you add a little more because you’re stressed at work. And then a little more because your kid brought a cold home from school. And then a little more because you haven’t been sleeping well. And a little more because of seasonal allergies. And before you know it, your immune system cup is overflowing and has no room to function well. All those little drips and drops add up, and the idea of the AIP diet is to try to identify and remove what foods are filling up your immune system cup.

AIP Coconut Porridge

Beyond the immune support, the AIP diet focuses, at it’s core, on nutrient density—basically getting the most nutrient bang for your caloric buck. That means that while you’ll find recipes for AIP cookies and AIP pancakes out there, those are considered treats that should be eaten extremely rarely—they just aren’t packed with the high level of nutrients your body needs to heal. Every plateful of AIP food should be fueling the healing in your body. This means tons of veggies, good-quality meat, seafood, and fish, and some fruits. This also means trying to find the highest quality options that will fit within your resource limitations. Free range meats, organic produce, and fresh foods take preference over other options (but doing the best you can with what you have is always my philosophy).

The AIP Diet is designed to be done short-term to promote healing—with a bare minimum recommendation of 30 days—and after you feel well again, you slowly start to reintroduce foods and gauge your body’s reaction to them. Because your body is healed, you’ll have a clean slate to observe food reactions, no matter how minor they may be. And then you have the information to make decisions about what foods can come back into your diet regularly, occasionally, rarely, or never.

So what can’t you eat?

No sugar-coating this one. It’s restrictive. You can’t eat: beans and legumes, eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc.), seeds (including seed-based spices like cumin), nuts (including nut milks like almond milk), dairy, grains (both gluten-containing and gluten-free grains), corn, soy, pseudo-grains (quinoa, amaranth, etc.), processed foods, vegetable oils, alcohol, coffee, chocolate.

Is it just about food?

Nope, food is just one aspect of the AIP “diet.” It’s the one that most people focus on because it’s the most dramatic, but living AIP also means doing other stuff like resetting your circadian rhythms (basically, re-teaching your body that dark=sleepytime and light=wakeytime), protecting your sleep, relieving stress, getting moderate and regular activity, fostering connections with people you love, and doing activities that bring you joy.

Healing your body doesn’t just happen in the gym, in the kitchen, or at the doctor’s office, it happens in your bedroom, on the phone with your friends, and while you’re knitting a scarf for your sister. I venture to say that if you just focus on the food aspect of AIP, you’re not really going to get the full benefits of the protocol. Trust me, if you cut out grains but still only get six hours of sleep at night and spend all your day stressed out, your body isn’t going to get a chance to heal.

Who does the AIP Diet help?

Based on the name (duh), the Autoimmune Protocol is designed for folks fighting autoimmune diseases. There are hundreds of these nasty little suckers—Hashimoto’s, Graves, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Celiac’s—and they all come back to one idea: the immune system is going haywire. And the AIP helps calm the immune system down.

But, the AIP isn’t just for people with autoimmune issues. Anytime your immune system is struggling, it can be useful. If you feel like your immune system just isn’t up to snuff, it’s worth researching and speaking with your healthcare professional about. I personally haven’t been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder (and don’t think I have one), but I’m still finding a lot of benefits to AIP—and I’m grateful that my health care professionals are on board with me eating this way. I truly believe it’s helping to support my immune system, and get my body back to “normal” (or maybe even better!).

The AIP is an extreme dietary change, and I just wouldn’t recommend it for anyone. It’s a therapeutic diet, meaning it’s not just something you pick up and do for funsies like trying to cut out Diet Coke for a month. The AIP is a treatment for an illness or disorder, and the hope is that once you’ve completed your treatment, you’ll be better and can stop the therapeutic diet (or at least, stop doing it to the extreme).

So, what exactly am I eating?

Want to see what a typical day looks like? Well, here you go:

Yogurt Bowl Breakfast

Breakfast: Plain (homemade) coconut yogurt with pumpkin puree, cinnamon apples, pomegranate arils, and AIP granola (still perfecting my granola recipe!). I drizzled a tiny splash of maple syrup on top of the whole bowl. I was totally sugar-free (not even adding natural sweeteners) for about six weeks, but I’m slowly bringing some honey and maple syrup back into my life.

Breakfast on AIP can be really tricky, because almost all of the “normal” breakfast foods are out (eggs, toast, pancakes, oatmeal)—even this yogurt bowl, while technically AIP compliant, isn’t 100% in the spirit of AIP (it’s not nutrient-dense enough and focuses too much on fruit). I’ve mostly been rotating between two breakfasts—loaded yogurt bowls and what I’m calling sweet potato scrambles—bacon, garlic, onion, sweet potatoes, and some sort of greens all scrambled together. I can’t wait to bring back eggs in!

Lunch: Instant Pot beef stroganoff over mashed cauliflower with spinach salad and apple cider dressing. Before August, I was eating an almost entirely plant-based diet (plus eggs and the occasional serving of fish or seafood), so going back to eating meat has been a transition, to say the least. We cut out meat for a variety of reasons, and it’s been an emotional journey to get okay with bringing meat back onto my plate regularly. Thankfully, cutting out dairy last year made that part of AIP no big deal at all!

I truly believe that there is no one-size-fits-all optimal diet for humans. What I need nutritionally might be different from what you need. And what I need now might be different from what I need in six months. I think we do the best we can with the information and resources we have at the time, and right now, having meat as a regular part of my diet is my best. And I hope eventually I can bring back some plant-based protein sources (beans, I miss you, please wait for me), and get back to more of a flexitarian diet.

Snack: Part of AIP is really not focusing on snacking a lot (only doing it if you need a snack not because it’s “snack time”), and I honestly haven’t really needed to do much snacking since going AIP. I think part of it is that my meals are so nutrient-dense now that they’re keeping me fuller longer, but also, my appetite still isn’t 100% back to where it was pre-illness. When I do snack, I grab an apple (hellooooooo, honeycrisps!) and some plantain chips.

Dinner: Chicken gnocchi soup (based off of this recipe, but made AIP with sweet potato/cassava gnocchi and coconut milk). One of my biggest symptoms during my mystery illness has been a lack of appetite. It’s gotten better in the past month or so—for a while there, it felt like I was chewing wet cement anytime I put food in my mouth—but I still rarely have an appetite after about 3pm. Now that the weather is cooler, soup has been my answer to my lack of appetite. A small bowl of soup is enough to give me some nutrition without making me feel nauseous. Sometimes, I’ll also just heat up a cup of chicken broth and have that for dinner.

One of my doctors (gosh, I can’t remember which one), said a lack of appetite is a pretty typical immune system response when you are fighting something—hence why you never really want to eat a full Thanksgiving dinner when you have the flu. Your body switches energy from digestion to illness fighting, and you just aren’t as hungry—and that’s totally fine. I’ve been told to go with it. I listen to my body and focus on simple foods when I’m not feeling hungry but know that I “need” to eat—smoothies, soups, broths, applesauce, etc.

When can you bring stuff back in?

Now! I’m now on my 7th week of AIP, and I’m starting to feel well enough to reintroduce some foods! It sounds really exciting (and it is), but it’s also an incredibly slow process. To do it “right,” it takes about 10 days to reintroduce each and every food item, and you have to do them all separately. So pecans separate from walnuts. Chia seeds separate from flax seeds. It can take folks months or even years to do a full reintroduction process properly.

For now, I’m just starting off with the foods that I really miss, and that list is actually surprisingly short—eggs, cumin, and some sort of protein/fiber seed (like chia, flax, or hemp). I started reintroductions with egg yolks, and that has gone well, so I think I might try bringing back in cumin next.

So what does this change at Wholefully?

In some ways, absolutely nothing, but it other ways, obviously lots. There are 564 recipes on Wholefully (I just checked!), and almost all of those are not AIP compliant. My team and I are working really hard to go back through those recipes to retest them, rewrite them, and rephotograph them so they are the best they can be. Which means you’ll still be seeing tons of non-AIP recipes coming through your computer screen as we work (like the Slow Cooker Ham and Beans update we did on Tuesday). I am so grateful to have an amazing team of talented women working for me helping me make Wholefully the best resource out there for healthy eating made simple—whatever “healthy eating” means to you.

But I’m also feeling well enough to get back to recipe developing again, and because this is how I’m eating, inherently the vast majority of my new recipes are going to be AIP-compliant. But I don’t think they are only for folks following AIP. Some upcoming recipes include: Anti-Inflammatory Turmeric Chicken Zoodle Soup, Turkey Florentine Meatballs with Pesto Spaghetti Squash, and Pumpkin Spice Breakfast Porridge. Call me crazy, but I think anyone could, should, and would like those dishes—AIP or not!

As always, thank you so much for tagging along, making my recipes, and sharing my posts. A blog is such a unique thing because it is inherently tied to one person and the ups-and-downs and changes of their life—and the fact that you guys continue to ride on this roller coaster with me just means the world to me.

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.
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