Can you cheat on the AIP Diet?
Posted on June 29 2020
By Cristina Curp, FNTP | TheCastawayKitchen.com
Can I cheat on AIP? This is a common question that might pop into your mind while on a strict elimination protocol. Before we dive into it, let’s break down what exactly the autoimmune protocol is.
What is an AIP diet?
The autoimmune protocol diet (AIP for short) is an elimination protocol for those looking to address symptoms of autoimmune disease. By eliminating common allergens as well as foods high in antinutrients, you can give your immune system a break, reduce inflammation, and heal leaky gut. When we focus on healing the gut by removing inflammatory food triggers, we can put symptoms of autoimmune disorders in remission and reintroduce foods one at a time to pinpoint what foods insight a reaction.
Identifying foods that trigger your immune system gives you the freedom to make your own food rules without worrying about autoimmune flare ups from these foods. The autoimmune protocol is the gold standard in elimination diets; effective in finding food intolerances and allergies, as well as relieving many environmental allergies, and many inflammatory skin conditions.
Embarking on the autoimmune protocol can be daunting. It’s a very restrictive diet and inherently the questions of “can I cheat on AIP?” will come up. It’s important to note that the autoimmune protocol, like any elimination diet, is not meant to be a permanent way of eating. The rule of thumb is to start with 30 days and continue until symptoms begin to improve. Let’s discuss what you CAN eat on AIP.
What can you eat on AIP?
AIP focuses on real, nutrient-dense food. While this is an elimination protocol, there are still plenty of delicious foods that you can enjoy on AIP.
AIP compliant foods include meat and vegetables (no nightshades), plus coconut and olive oil, dairy-free fermented food, vinegars (made with no added sugar), and herbs. Think of a really clean paleo blueprint, then omit the eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, potato, eggplant and peppers), nuts, seeds, seed-based spices (cumin!), coffee, chocolate and ghee. Ingredients like coconut cream and coconut oil, coconut aminos, extra virgin olive oil, cassava flour, and grass-fed beef gelatin will become your recipe heroes!
Sticking to AIP compliant foods is the best way to guarantee that you will get the most out of your autoimmune protocol. Not only will 100% compliance give your gut a break, but you’ll be able to better identify trigger foods during your reintroduction.
That being said, stress can be a huge trigger for inflammation. Food fear is real and panicking every time you need to go out might be a bigger obstacle than staying the course with 100% compliance. So can you cheat on AIP?
Can you cheat on AIP?
To answer this question, first we need to unpack what “cheat” means. An autoimmune protocol isn’t like a typical diet -- we have to look at it as a prescription focused on addressing an underlying condition. This is a therapeutic diet, and you are embarking on this journey because you have real, serious consequences to foods. These consequences manifest in symptoms of your autoimmune disease.
When you eat with the intention of staying healthy, staying pain free, and staying mobile, falling off the proverbial wagon isn’t about your waistline. The cheat mentality comes from diet culture; it insinuates you are being unfaithful to your better self or your goals by eating something off plan. It’s the guilt and shame that feeds into the cycle of yo-yo dieting, which is how the diet industry makes money. I don’t believe that mentality applies here -- let me explain.
Diet culture works by over restricting: you’re hungry, so of course, eventually your body will be screaming “Feed me!” When you do, you likely overeat or eat convenience foods that are highly palatable and easy to consume in large quantities. This triggers guilt and feelings of shame for “failing,” (diets are meant to fail) and you inevitably over restrict to compensate. This is the yo-yo diet culture trap, but this trap is completely avoidable on AIP.
How AIP differs from other diets
On AIP, while the food variety might be limited, there is no limit on how much you can eat! Eat to satisfaction! As long as the food you’re eating is compliant, you can enjoy satiety.
The trick with AIP is managing your options when you go out to eat, or getting hungry when you’re not home and not 100% in control of food options. This can be very stressful, and the old diet mentality of perfection can kick in. This stress alone is enough to send you into a flare. However, I beg you, remember that the foods we eliminate on AIP are not “bad”-- ditching the diet culture means ditching food morality. There are foods that could possibly cause unwanted symptoms in your body, so we avoid those foods in order to heal. That’s it.
It’s important to remember that it’s unlikely that you’ll react to all of the foods you have eliminated on the autoimmune protocol. More often than not, we have some sense of which foods are most likely safe for us, an intuition, if you will. For example, I knew that I did not react to eggs when I did my elimination phase, however, I still eliminated them for posterity's sake. Eggs were one of my first reintroductions. For you it could be cumin, or coffee, or cashews…
What I’m getting at is that the point of AIP is to feel good and stay healthy, if you can find some wiggle room for those times when you just need an exception, use your intuition, use common sense. A Twinkie (or another highly processed frankenfood) is never going to make you feel good. But if you can, make some compromises and make a choice based on food quality, access, and your intuition. I don’t call that a cheat. I call that doing what you gotta do.
There is no cheating, there are only nuances
Nuances are the most difficult part of nutrition to teach. Most people want a manual, a how-to, a rule book. Well, the autoimmune protocol or autoimmune paleo is just that: a big, strict, hard core diet with a ton of rules. The Paleo Approach by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne is THE resource for starting AIP and it’s got all the science and all the rules.
What this article is about is the nuances, the shades of gray. Can you cheat on AIP? I don’t think that vernacular applies here. The short answer is: it depends. I have dedicated my work to these nuances, an approach to nutrition that focuses on the individual.
“It depends” is always the answer when asking a targeted nutrition question outside of a one on one conversation, because your answer won’t be the same as your neighbor’s. However, we can discuss how to make informed decisions when the occasion arises. For example, gluten is highly reactive for a lot of people, it is also just plain ole’ bad for your gut. Highly processed, often GMO ingredients like soy, corn, or peanuts aren’t a great option either. If you’re lactose intolerant, then dairy would be a no-go.
A sound guideline is to stick to regular paleo-ish foods when you’re seeking flexibility with AIP for a special occasion. If you want sushi, and you’re pretty sure you’re okay with white rice, for one night, it's fine. Take your own coconut aminos, stick to sashimi and nigiri.
Remember, this is an exception. It’s a moment, a meal… not the new normal. The new normal comes when you have properly completed the reintroduction phase. Which brings me to my next point.
If you have been in the elimination phase for a while (more than 3 months) and find yourself feeling better and always seeking these exceptions, it’s probably time to do some reintroductions. If you eat a food (a real, unprocessed, good for you food), that is not AIP elimination phase compliant and you feel good after, it’s time to try to add that food into the rotation permanently. Variety in your diet is the goal!
How to eat after you complete an AIP
Again, the autoimmune protocol is not meant to be a lifelong practice. Ultimately, AIP should be a tool in your arsenal for better understanding your body, and for managing autoimmune disorders.
While a reduction in inflammation is a huge benefit of AIP, the ultimate goal is to find your yes foods, your worth it foods, and your hard no foods. These categories will differ from person to person, but they look like this:
- Yes Foods: anything that you love and can digest well, you can eat this food daily without worry.
- Worth It Foods: foods that you enjoy on special occasions, knowing they may trigger some minor symptoms that won’t disrupt your quality of life.
- Hard No Foods: foods that will cause a flare up and/or chronic pain that will disrupt your quality of life and trigger your worst autoimmune symptoms. For me, these are foods that I will always stay clear of, because they’re not worth it to me.
I break this down in my new book, Made Whole Made Simple. As someone who manages several conditions through diet and lifestyle, and has done so going on 6 years, I have come to value three things: flexibility, resiliency, and my mental/emotional wellbeing. These categories help me attain those three things.
Your results are unique to you, and the outcome depends on your bioindividuality; even two people with the same autoimmune issue may react to different foods during reintroduction, and those two individuals will make different choices to manage their symptoms going forward.
Ultimately, AIP outcomes, like the outcomes of any other health protocol, depend on your goals, stressors, and health history.
When I am ready for reintroductions and how do I reintroduce foods on AIP?
There isn’t a specific guideline for how long anyone should do the autoimmune protocol. My suggestion is to continue until symptoms significantly improve or you achieve remission. However, the latter often takes a long time: too long to be on such a restrictive diet. As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I also recommend that if three months of being on an elimination protocol is not bringing about significant change, you should seek a functional medicine practitioner. Sometimes there are deeper issues that can be identified with lab work and the help of a professional.
The good news is, diet alone can be absolutely life changing! Real food heals, and I am living proof. When you notice more time between shorter flare ups with less acute symptoms, when you feel more freedom in your body, when you feel like a new person, it's time to say thank you to the elimination phase that got you there and turn to the next phase of healing.
I recommend keeping a detailed food log and also tracking your symptoms during reintroduction. When you try a new food, eat a small portion of it on day one. The next day, eat a regular portion of the same food. The third day, eat a large portion. Then wait 48 hours, consuming only AIP elimination phase compliant foods. If there is no reaction, then that food is a safe food. Repeat the process with another new food and keep track as you go.
Stress is a killer
A few things to consider in closing: food quality, sleep, and stress. Do not try new foods when you have a lot going on. When you are stressed out, your digestion is impaired, your gut is vulnerable, you are more susceptible to inflammation. Also, if you have been doing strict AIP for a long time and are not getting better, check your stress. You can’t out diet chronic cortisol output, and chronic inflammation is a sign that there is a deeper issue going on that cannot be resolved with food alone.
This stress response and its impact on your health and your autoimmune symptoms is also why I say to ditch the diet mentality, ditch the “cheat” vernacular. Do the best you can for as long as you can. Healing isn’t just about what you put in your body, but your habits. Prioritize sleep, movement, and stress management. Get sun every day and smile! You’re on a healing journey and it’s not the easy path, but it’s worth it. You deserve to thrive!
Eat enough, manage stress, keep it simple and order from POTG!