What diet is best for autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune disease, thought to affect approximately four million people living in the UK, refers to a collection of conditions that sees the immune system attacking its own tissue. Whilst we don’t know exactly why this happens, we do know that one of the defining factors of autoimmune disease is inflammation, but it’s yet to be determined if inflammation is the cause or effect. And our food choices can directly impact systemic inflammation and so influence on a symptomatic level, how autoimmune disease presents.

Man in kitchen cooking

With the help of nutritional therapist and autoimmune disease expert VJ Hamilton, we’re going to explore how your diet really affects the onset and management of autoimmune disease.

“Food is a big factor, but in an indirect way,” says VJ. “You can’t say this one thing causes that, but due to the mechanisms we know are involved in autoimmune disease, food has a powerful influence on it.” So if some foods can be unhelpful, are there any foods that might help manage the condition? Well, yes, but let’s take a look at a key component first, the gut.

Cause, prevention and cure

Scientists often cite genetic predisposition, chronic infection, high levels of toxicity (e.g. pollution, non-organic food), stress and increased intestinal permeability as high contributing factors to autoimmune disease, and VJ explains that both toxicity and increased intestinal permeability go hand in hand with the food we eat.

“People may have heard of increased intestinal permeability as leaky gut syndrome. It’s when you have these wider gaps in the digestive system, which let food particles and bacteria and everything else into the bloodstream and can cause the immune system to flare up.”

Whilst this is a normal process, with leaky gut syndrome the gaps are wider and don’t contract as much, allowing germs to pass into the bloodstream, causing widespread inflammation. Certain foods and food groups can contribute to leaky gut such as refined carbohydrates and grains.

Just like the cause, there isn’t a definitive cure for autoimmune disease, and as VJ shares, she will always have the condition, although her symptoms have reversed. She now lives symptom-free with the help of diet and lifestyle intervention, so there certainly is hope for those with the condition.

Foods to avoid with autoimmune disease

Mostly, we are accustomed to eating a Western-style diet, which contains a lot of pro-inflammatory foods. “That means when we digest them for various reasons, they can cause inflammation in the body. So for example, trans fats like industrial seed oils found in processed foods or high-sugar foods.” These foods are often packaged goods or convenience/fast foods that can all cause inflammation and then lead to autoimmune disease.

Foods to avoid or reduce:

  • red meat
  • caffeine
  • eggs
  • alcohol
  • flour
  • gluten
  • dairy products containing casein

You might also consider limiting nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, aubergine, potatoes, peppers).

It’s important to note that many of these foods are considered healthy and part of a balanced diet, so if you are considering exploring the food connection to your autoimmune disease, always do so under the guidance of a registered nutrition professional to ensure you don’t miss out on key nutrients.

When thinking about what foods to eat, it’s also essential to look after the gut microbiome.

Foods to eat with autoimmune disease

As we know inflammation is key in the onset of autoimmune disease, consuming anti-inflammatory foods and foods that are antioxidants can be really beneficial in symptom management.

“So things like colourful fruits and vegetables: the pigments in these are antioxidants that may help to bring down inflammation by reducing oxidative stress. And also our omega-three fats; the fats found in oily fish, flaxseed and chia seed. They’re really good at bringing inflammation down in the body.”

When thinking about what foods to eat, it’s also essential to look after the gut microbiome.

“Thinking about gut nourishing foods, that’s why you’ve probably heard a lot about bone broth, as that’s very, very good for the digestive system.” You might also consider bringing in foods like organ meat (e.g. liver) and fermented foods like sauerkraut or kombucha which are probiotics for the gut.

Foods to include: 

  • leafy greens
  • turmeric
  • berries
  • grass-fed meat and poultry
  • fresh fruit (in moderation)

So now we know there are certain foods thought to exacerbate symptoms, there is one diet that pulls the recommendations altogether. A relatively new concept, the Autoimmune Paleo Diet is thought to be highly beneficial to help those manage their condition. We asked VJ to explain the concept.

The AIP protocol

“There is a concept of anti-inflammatory eating and part of that has to do with the Paleo diet. This is where we eat as we did as cavemen. The Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP) uses Paleo principles and looks specifically at the contributing factor, leaky gut syndrome, and thinks about foods that could cause leaky gut syndrome for various reasons.”

The Paleo diet excludes foods such as sugar, fruit juice, beans, lentils, dairy, some vegetable oils, bread, pasta and more. It encourages whole, unprocessed foods including avocado oil, salt and spices, wild-caught fish and seafood, kale, beef and many fruits.

With the Autoimmune Paleo Diet, you start off with an elimination phase that restricts a variety of foods for 30 days. “The AIP diet really looks at all the foods that could potentially trigger gut inflammation and leaky gut syndrome and removes those from the diet for a short period of time while the digestive system heals. The types of foods that are removed are things like dairy and gluten, grains, legumes, even nuts and seeds, so some of these things are what we would definitely consider being healthy.”

That’s the thing about the Autoimmune Paleo Diet, it’s about actually bringing in those nutrient-dense antioxidants and inflammation-reducing foods as much as taking foods out.

Due to the nature of the AIP, VJ recommends working a nutrition professional. When it comes to autoimmune disease and diet, a nutrition professional will always try to uncover the underlying cause of the issue and work out what specific foods might be triggering a person. Whilst the AIP is generally suitable for most people, personalisation is key, as VJ said, some of the foods you are encouraged to remove, are certainly considered healthy.

If you’re looking for support with your autoimmune disease and are ready to reach out to a nutrition professional who can support you holistically, you can get in touch with VJ Hamilton, a specialist in autoimmune disease.

Alternatively, use the advanced search to find a professional in your area or online.

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Written by Katie Hoare
Katie is a writer for Nutritionist Resource.
Written by Katie Hoare
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