Gut health has been in and out of the public conversation for centuries, but a sharp increase in autoimmune diseases has led to an explosion in discussions about leaky gut syndrome, prompted a wave of inflammation-focused diets like Paleo and AIP, and sparked a reexamination of the effects our guts have on our health and wellbeing.
The gut is often considered the "gateway to health", and many doctors believe that damage to your intestinal wall can actually lead to widespread symptoms.
The Autoimmune Protocol diet aims to reduce the symptoms of autoimmune diseases by eliminating stressors and reducing the stress you put on your gut — allowing it to heal before reintroducing potentially inflammatory foods.
In other words, the AIP diet isn't a traditional diet that is focused on weight loss and calorie reduction; AIP is designed to promote gut health.
AIP is considered an evolved form of the Paleo diet, but it's even more restrictive. It's all about swapping grains and inflammatory foods for nutrient-rich, natural alternatives and then slowly reintroducing foods to see how they affect your health.
Let's get started.
What is the AIP Diet?
The Autoimmune Protocol diet is an elimination diet designed to repair the immune system and reduce the effects of autoimmune diseases by giving your gut time to heal.
It's also referred to as the paleo autoimmune protocol, and it's sort of like paleo with added restrictions — with the express purpose of reducing autoimmune disease symptoms.
Generally speaking, autoimmune diseases are conditions when the body mistakes healthy tissues for toxic tissues and begins to attack its own body.
They're characterized by an "overactive immune system that leads to chronic inflammation and tissue destruction".
Autoimmune disease symptoms typically include inflammation such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriasis. But autoimmune diseases can be difficult to diagnose since their symptoms can look like other diseases, often leading them to be misidentified.
These symptoms are what an AIP diet plan is designed to push back against, and its purported benefits are achieved through healing a condition known as “leaky gut” or “hyperpermeability”.
What Is Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Leaky gut syndrome is when your weak bowel lining allows in larger molecules, toxins, and bacteria than it should.
For many individuals, this stress can occur from gluten. Some proteins found in gluten may widen your pores and open up the intestinal wall.
When your gut lining is more porous, it can't keep out undesirables, and this results in toxins and other germs getting into your bloodstream and causing a whole host of issues.
Leaky gut awareness advocates stress the detrimental effects food industrialization has had on our guts and health as a whole. They tie everything back to how humans evolved to eat in the first place. Bread and grains were a rarity, and even when they were consumed it was through processes like sourdough that break down the grains and make them easier to digest.
How Is the AIP Diet Related to Leaky Gut?
The medical diagnosis of leaky gut is still being contested in the medical field, but the idea of intestinal permeability has been known in medical literature for over one hundred years.
Studies have linked intestinal permeability to celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Crohn's disease.
Now doctors are trying to figure out how widespread the effects of a leaky gut are. Some doctors don't think there is enough evidence to blame certain symptoms on hyperpermeability — others are convinced leaky gut syndrome is one of the great crises of our age with an estimated 50 million people suffering from an autoimmune body.
These distinctions are what doctors are currently researching.
An AIP diet plan aims to eliminate inflammatory foods and replace them with foods that are easy to digest and nutrient-rich. Over time, this should close up the “holes” and help heal your gut.
This "healing" aims to:
- Reduce the symptoms associated with Autoimmune Disease
- Reduce autoimmune responses
- Restart your immune system
- Prevent secondary autoimmune diseases
How does the AIP Diet work?
An AIP diet plan is split into two phases: the elimination phase and the reintroduction phase.
Phase 1: Elimination
Most experts recommend a thirty-day cleanse, but you could extend this phase all the way to 90 days.
During this time you eliminate all foods suspected of causing inflammation. These include grains, legumes, dairy, sugars, alcohol, nightshades, additives, and others.
The standard AIP meal plan also recommends eating more nutrient-dense foods like:
- Bone broth
- Large amounts of colorful vegetables
- High-quality meats and fats
- Fatty fish and shellfish
- Fermented foods
The idea is to wait until you feel better. Theoretically, by removing all suspected irritants you should notice a reduction in symptoms. You should experience less intestinal trouble, better sleep, have more mental clarity, have more energy, and generally "feel" better.
Many AIP dieters use a food journal to record what they eat and how they feel.
Once you reach this point, you can begin to reintroduce foods you cut out one by one — essentially running an individualized experiment that tries to determine which foods make you feel bad.
Phase 2: Reintroduction
The reintroduction phase of an AIP diet occurs in increments. The process goes like this:
- Finish the elimination phase.
- Choose one single food or food group to reintroduce.
- Pick a day to reintroduce the food.
- Eat a very small amount of the food and wait 20-30 minutes.
- If you feel okay, eat a bit more and wait a few hours.
- If you still feel fine, eat a "normal portion".
- Don't eat any more of that food and eat just like you were during the elimination phase for the next 5 days.
- If you feel just as good as you did before introducing the food, then that food is safe. If you noticed feeling worse, then you can add that to your "irritant" list.
- Repeat until all food groups have been tested.
- Build what you've learned into your new lifestyle.
An AIP diet plan gives you the information you need to know how your body reacts to foods. Unless you're allergic, it doesn't mean you have to completely cut out the foods you've identified, either — it just equips you with the knowledge you need to make smarter choices. For example, if you know dairy makes it hard for you to sleep, you may avoid it in your weekly diet but choose to accept the consequences on holidays.
Pro tip: keep a food journal to track which days you reintroduced what and how you felt after eating them — then you can rely on that as a guide for the rest of your life.
AIP Diet Food List: What You Can and Can't Eat
There are a lot of foods you can't eat on AIP, but the main idea is to eliminate all preservatives, grains, and inflammatory foods and replace them with more nutrient-rich foods.
You Can Eat These Foods on an AIP Diet
- Proteins: Beef, lamb, chicken, pork, fish, turkey, and other organic meats and fish.
- Vegetables: yams, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, mushrooms, onion, kale, arugula, cucumber, and all other leafy greens and organic vegetables (excluding nightshades like potatoes and peppers).
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, berries, pears, peaches, mangos, and all other fruits in moderation.
- Herbs and spices: Salt, cilantro, thyme, dill, cinnamon, basil, mint, rosemary, and most cooking herbs and spices.
- Fats: Avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil, beef tallow, chicken fat, and other fats derived from grass-fed beef.
- Pantry and baking: Bone broth powder, apple cider vinegar, coconut sugar, honey, coconut flour, arrowroot starch, and other natural syrups.
- Fermented foods (excluding dairy): Think sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir — all of which are fun and easy to make at home.
Note: Part of succeeding with this AIP food list is remembering that a lot of foods aren't inflammatory by themselves, but the additives and preservatives companies add to them are. Whatever you can do to avoid big industry meats (fed by grains instead of grass) and fish farms, do so.
Scratch These Off Your AIP Food List
- Grains: Rice, rye, quinoa, corn, oats, wheat, barley, and any other food or drink derived from grains.
- Legumes: Black beans, pinto beans, lima beans, peanuts, soy, cocoa, lentils, and any other bean or legume.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, chia, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and any other seed oil or product.
- Select spices: Allspice, anise, pepper, poppy seeds, celery seed, cumin, caraway, mustard, nutmeg, and fennel seed.
- Dairy and eggs: Milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, cream, butter, and anything else made of dairy.
- Nightshades: Bell peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, cherries, red spices, goji berries, and tomatillos.
- Processed/industrial foods: Additives and preservatives all contribute to an unhealthy gut lining, so anything that is store-frozen or packaged needs to go.
- Sugars: molasses, brown sugar, regular sugar, and any foods containing sugar.
- Alcohol: Beer, liquor, wine, and anything else containing alcohol (with the exception of kombucha).
What is the Evidence for the AIP Diet?
A widespread clinical consensus has not been reached, but some studies show promising results. A 2019 study enrolled 16 women in a 10-week AIP meal plan, and while there weren't significant changes in thyroid function, the study's findings suggested a decrease in systemic inflammation and advised funding for a larger study.
Similarly, another 2019 study found that IBS symptoms were reduced after implementing an AIP meal plan, but there were only 15 participants — the authors once again recommended a wider spread study to see if the results are repeatable on a larger scale.
What does this mean for you?
While the jury is still out, the results are looking positive. If you struggle with an autoimmune disease, suspect you have a leaky gut or are curious about how an AIP diet will make you feel — give it a shot. Just remember that elimination diets require significant changes in your diet and are safest under the direction of a health professional.
Easy 7-Day AIP Meal Plan
Just because an AIP diet is super restrictive doesn't mean you can't eat well. We've made an easy 7-day autoimmune diet plan for you that's specifically based on the elimination phase.
- Breakfast: Fruit salad with bananas, strawberries, and blueberries
- Lunch: Oven-baked salmon with lemon slices over a bed of arugula
- Snack: Fresh cucumber
- Dinner: Ground beef patties
- Breakfast: Sweet potato hash with steak
- Lunch: Turkey breast and avocado
- Snack: Chomps sea salt beef jerky stick
- Dinner: Chicken thighs and asparagus
- Breakfast: Sautéed ham and spinach.
- Lunch: Kale chips and chicken breast.
- Snack: A can of tuna
- Dinner: Bunless mushroom burger
- Breakfast: Mushroom and onion mix with pork loin
- Lunch: Creamy AIP chicken salad
- Snack: Pickles
- Dinner: Roasted squash, broccoli, and grilled tilapia
- Breakfast: Chicken livers and spinach
- Lunch: Turkey burgers
- Snack: Chomps italian style beef jerky stick
- Dinner: Roasted duck and brussel sprouts
- Breakfast: AIP porridge
- Lunch: Sweet potato chicken poppers
- Snack: Fresh melon and honey
- Dinner: Shrimp over zucchini pasta
- Breakfast: Blueberry coconut smoothie
- Lunch: Grilled chicken tenders and asparagus
- Snack: Dried fruit
- Dinner: Coconut shrimp and grits
Additional AIP Meal Plan Snack Options
Many of us rely on carb-loaded foods like bread to help us stay full, and we don't realize how much we rely on them until we stop eating them. Here are a few more common AIP snacks to help get you through those hunger pangs:
- AIP granola
- Root vegetable fries
- AIP trail mix
- Chomps beef sticks
The AIP diet is designed to reduce inflammation by systematically removing all foods known to or believed to agitate autoimmune systems and the gut. It's split into two phases: the elimination phase and the reintroduction phase. By eating a strict, additive and irritant-free diet for at least thirty days, you can analyze how foods make you feel from a "clean slate".
Ideally, after you complete an autoimmune diet plan you will have a unique guide on which foods make you feel what ways and why. This is a powerful asset you can use to shape your health for years to come. While the science is still not conclusive on the AIP diet, early studies are promising.