Rather than beginning with what you can’t have, let’s start with the high-value foods that you should have lots of.
The Autoimmune Protocol, like its parent, the Paleo Diet, is known for what you’re supposed to cut out, and deprivation is a tough sell. I will get into the specifics of avoidance to reset the immune system in future posts, but there’s a practical reason why AIP founder Sarah Ballantyne PhD starts her food recommendations on a note of plenty.
The unspoken, equally important reason? A functioning immune system needs micronutrients — vitamins, minerals, and other cofactors — while most of us are preoccupied with macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbs. The foods at the forefront of the AIP are dense with critical micronutrients, which the Standard American Diet is notoriously deficient in.
Three particular food classes get special recognition:
- Fish and shellfish
- Organ meats
- Fiber-rich multicolored vegetables & fruits
Fish and shellfish
This one surprised me because physicians are trained to recommend fish cautiously due to mercury concerns, especially for women of childbearing age, and there are various negative stories about shellfish being bottom feeders.
But with very few exceptions (e.g., shark, red mullet, gilt-head bream, and swordfish) most water dwellers have negligible amounts of methylmercury in their flesh, or have this mercury bound to and neutralized by higher amounts of selenium.
And shellfish, being very low on the food chain, don’t accumulate mercury from eating other fish that eat other fish.
Fish are the best dietary source of omega-3s, which counteract the inflammation and clotting/blood pressure elevating tendencies caused by excessive omega-6 fats (from many cooking oils and non-grass fed/finished animal proteins). The recommended omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is around 1:1, most Americans are around 1:20, and fish like sardines or wild caught salmon are around 250:1, for a nice corrective boost.
Fish are also the best dietary source of vitamin D, and shellfish like oysters give you a full complement of daily zinc, and are a rich source of B12, copper, iron, selenium, manganese, and phosphorus.
The AIP recommends eating some kind of fish or seafood at least 3 times a week, and daily if possible. Knock yourself out on shrimp, crayfish, clams, mussels, oysters, salmon, trout, tuna, halibut, sole, sea bass, tilapia, and non-king mackerel. For most folks in the continental US, basically anything except for swordfish and shark.
This isn’t a surprise: “Liver and onions” once weekly was a staple of my father at the hospital cafeteria, and coincidentally that’s the recommendation on the AIP: some kind of organ meat — liver, kidney, heart, tongue, pancreas, or tripe (intestines) at least once weekly, preferably at 3-4 meals weekly.
The But my God, man, Why??? is pretty much what you’d expect: organ meats are THE nutritional powerhouses for micronutrients, in a food-based, well-absorbed form.
Organ meat is quite simply the most nutrient dense food on the planet. Not only that, but it’s high in many nutrients in which we tend to be deficient, so eating more organ meat is one of the most expedient ways to improve health.
Many key nutrients are available in other animal and to a lesser degree plant sources, but at 1-2 lower orders of magnitude: all the B vitamins (not a plant thing), minerals like phosphorus, iron, copper, magnesium, iodine, calcium, selenium, and calcium (less present in modern-day produce due to depleted soil), plus vitamin D and the omega-3 fats.
For ease of communication, we talk about nutrients with a vocabulary associated with pill supplements, like vitamin B12 and zinc. But there have been definite issues with extracting, concentrating, and processing these nutrients to make them pill stable and convenient; health benefits have either been neutral or in some cases harmful, in ways not seen when the same nutrients are ingested in their original food form.
Both the AIP and functional medicine recommend increasing intake of key nutrients in their original foods, whenever possible. And organ meats are one of the most nutritious and efficient ways of doing so.
Rainbow-colored veggies & fruits
Much easier sell, here.
As much variety in color as possible: green, pale, dark green, red, blue, orange, purple, yellow, etc.
Most of us really like fruit, which you can eat on the AIP: oranges, blueberries, strawberries, apples, pears, etc. I don’t go bananas here, ha, but 2 servings a day of whole fruit is OK even for people with diabetes.
But veggies are critical as well: fiber in vegetables and fruit are broken down by our healthy gut bacteria into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are involved in preventing leaky gut, regulating gene expression (!!!), changing immune system function, fighting tumors and infections, and reducing inflammation.
And if that weren’t good enough, the multiple colors correlate to loads of — you guessed it — critical micronutrients.
There are exceptions
But for now, wrap your mind around the basic concepts of abundance and micronutrient density, like a sheet of nori seaweed around a California roll.
More specifics to come.