An autoimmune disease is any condition where a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks and damages its own bodily tissues. Inflammation is a common feature of an autoimmune disease. Examples include psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
This article explores what the AIP diet is and what foods a person can and cannot eat if they want to follow the diet. It also considers the scientific evidence available to support the effectiveness of the AIP diet in the management and treatment of autoimmune diseases.
What is the AIP diet?
The AIP diet is a version of the Paleo diet, designed to help treat autoimmune diseases.
Also known as the paleo autoimmune protocol, the AIP diet is a much stricter version of the Paleo diet (which is based on meat, fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds).
It advises eliminating foods that may cause inflammation in the gut and eat nutrient-rich foods.
The AIP diet is based on a belief that autoimmune conditions are caused by something called a “leaky gut”, which is medically now referred to as altered intestinal permeability.
The theory is that small holes in the gut cause food to leak into the body. This is thought to cause the immune system to overreact and start attacking bodily tissues in error.
By eating nutrient-rich foods and avoiding inflammatory ones, the AIP diet aims to heal any holes in the gut. This is thought to help:
- reset the immune system
- prevent the autoimmune response
- reduce symptoms of autoimmune diseases
- prevent the occurrence of secondary autoimmune diseases
People who do the AIP diet should follow it strictly for a few weeks and then slowly reintroduce foods that they have avoided.
The idea is to see if there is a reaction when the food is reintroduced. If there is a reaction, the suggestion is that a person should exclude this food from their diet long-term.
Foods to eat on the AIP diet
- meat and fish, preferably not factory raised
- vegetables (but not nightshades, such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes)
- sweet potatoes
- fruit (in small quantities)
- coconut milk
- avocado, olive, and coconut oil
- dairy-free fermented foods, such as kombucha, kefir made with coconut milk, sauerkraut, and kimchi
- honey or maple syrup (but only to be used occasionally, in small quantities)
- fresh non-seed herbs, such as basil, mint, and oregano
- green tea and non-seed herbal teas
- bone broth
- vinegars, such as apple cider and balsamic
Foods to avoid on the AIP diet
- all grains, such as oats, rice, and wheat
- all dairy
- legumes, such as beans and peanuts
- nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes)
- all sugars, including sugar replacements (except for occasional use of honey)
- butter and ghee
- all oils (except for avocado, coconut, and olive)
- food additives
Recipes and snack options
Here are some AIP meal plans to get started.
A green smoothie can be nutritionally dense, and filling enough to replace a small meal.
This AIP smoothie recipe, from Paleo Mum, is a tasty breakfast meal replacement:
- ½ banana
- ¼ avocado
- 1 cup vegetable juice
- 2-3 cups fresh leafy greens (for example, spinach and kale)
- 1-2 scoops AIP-friendly (collagen) protein powder
Blend all the ingredients except for the protein powder in a food processor for up to 2 minutes. Add the protein powder and pulse the food processor to blend it in.
This soup recipe from AIP Lifestyle is a simple and tasty idea for lunch that a person can make in advance:
- 3 cups of fresh, washed baby arugula
- 2 ½ cups of bone broth
- 2 cups steamed parsnips
- 1 cup roasted spring onions
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- pinch of salt
After heating the bone broth in a pan and steaming the parsnips, add all the ingredients into a food processor and blend.
This quick and easy AIP chicken dinner idea is inspired by Eat Something Delicious:
- 1 whole chicken
- 1 lb. frozen cubed sweet potato
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 ¾ AIP-friendly herb blend (such as garlic and herbs)
- 1 lb. frozen broccoli
Arrange the frozen vegetables and chicken in a baking tray and season with the oil, salt, and herb blend.
Cover the tray with foil and roast in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and roast in the oven for a further 20 minutes, or so.
Carob chip bars for snacking
This tasty snack idea is from Angel Slice:
- 2 large ripe plantains
- ½ pumpkin
- 2 tbsp. tigernut flour
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- 3 tbsp. coconut butter
- ¼ coconut oil
- 2 tbsp. honey
- ¼ carob chips
Blend all ingredients except for carob chips in a food processor. Pour into a greased loaf pan and add in the carob chips. Bake for up to 50 minutes. The bars can be served with whipped coconut cream on top as an addition.
Does the AIP diet work?
The logic behind the AIP diet is that avoiding gut-irritating foods and eating nutrient-rich ones will reduce inflammation and heal any holes in the gut.
This is believed to reduce or prevent the immune system from attacking bodily tissues. In this way, the AIP diet aims to reduce the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. But what evidence is there that it works?
The link between gut health and autoimmune disease
Gut health may affect inflammatory diseases. The AIP diet attempts to treat such diseases with a specific diet.
There is some scientific evidence to support the link between gut health and inflammatory disease.
A 2012 study suggested bacterial growth in the gut might be linked to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
This study in 2014 notes that the gut wall is maintained by networks of proteins. It explains that inflammation affects how well the gut wall functions. It also notes that food allergies can make the gut wall more porous.
The study concludes that problems with the gut wall are associated with autoimmune diseases. This goes some way to support the idea of the “leaky gut” proposed by supporters of the AIP diet.
However, the study adds that more research is needed to confirm that gut wall dysfunction is a primary risk factor in the development of inflammatory disease.
The AIP diet and autoimmune disease symptom reduction
A 2017 study found that eliminating certain foods as part of the AIP diet can improve symptoms of the autoimmune disease inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
This is one of the first clinical studies into the effectiveness of AIP diet. Further studies are required to support claims that it can reduce symptoms of other autoimmune diseases.
Research suggests that autoimmune diseases may be linked to how porous the gut wall may be.
It follows that a diet that promotes gut health may be beneficial for those with autoimmune diseases. There is evidence that one such regime, the AIP diet, may reduce symptoms of the autoimmune disease IBD.
More research is needed to say with certainty that the AIP diet can improve symptoms of all autoimmune diseases. However, the AIP diet is a healthful diet that people with autoimmune diseases may find beneficial. This diet may also reduce the need for certain medications or high dosages.
Anyone with an autoimmune disease looking to try the AIP diet should discuss this with their doctor.