How the autoimmune protocol diet changed my family’s life


May 8, 2020

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“Wait, no gluten, dairy, corn, soy, sugar…NO COFFEE? Oh I could never do that”… 

Let me rewind and explain that I’m a former sugar-holic, Sally’s Baking Addiction fanatic, leftover-brownies-for-breakfast-girl, who loved to make homemade mac and cheese and other gooey, cheesy, gluten-y meals for my family. Food is love, and love in our home was abundant in the form of packaged treats, Kraft mac and cheese, and trips to Chik-Fil-A. 

Thus, you can imagine how frightening it was to envision a lifestyle like the autoimmune protocol (commonly known as AIP) which promotes a dramatic shift in nutrition and lifestyle to reduce inflammation in the body, ultimately reversing the symptoms of my chronic disease.

But, I’ve found that most people won’t make a drastic lifestyle/diet change unless they are faced with an ultimatum, like we were. We had three options: I could stay sick with the status quo, I could take a lifetime of steroids and prescriptions as the specialist at the most prestigious hospital in our state proposed, OR… we could try the Autoimmune Protocol. Which is, what we did. 

When I first asked my husband to try AIP with me, I asked because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cook for two different lifestyles at each meal, nor would I have the energy (mentally or physically!) to shop for two lifestyles. Most importantly,  I knew I wouldn’t have the self-control to commit to AIP while brownies, gluten, cheese, and sugar existed in the house. 

But I was willing to try anything given how sick I was, and when I asked my husband, he agreed to go all-in. We didn’t baby-step into the process, we gave it our all and committed to two weeks total. We decided that if we didn’t notice marked improvements in two weeks we’d call it quits and go back to our comfort foods. 

You can imagine our shock and delight when after only a few days, the psoriasis rash on my elbows disappeared, canker sores in my mouth vanished, my digestive woes improved, and our infant daughter’s persistent diarrhea (which often kept us homebound) lessened. Within two weeks we had all noticed changes in our family. 

One of our children had dealt with chronic constipation since she was about six months old. Her pediatrician recommended a daily dose of Miralax and a children’s enema for the days when Miralax wasn’t enough. Imagine that reality for a moment. Our daughter would scream in pain when she couldn’t use the bathroom and I’d sob as we wrestled her to insert an enema. 

Surely there had to be a better way. But how was I supposed to know since the doctor said it was just her normal? We clearly needed a new pediatrician but I didn’t know any better, and I hate to admit that we lived this way for years. It became the norm and as such, I wasn’t expecting relief from this area in our lives when we started AIP. Her digestive system improved dramatically in two weeks and I haven’t bought Miralax or enemas since.

I could type page upon page describing the benefits our family has experienced from AIP. But the truth is, I never intended to share our story on such a personal level. 

After all, we are just a husband and wife who made a lifestyle change with our four kids, and it doesn’t seem heroic by any means. Yet, lifestyle changes like AIP are hard to keep personal. Family weddings, baby showers, date nights out with friends, vacations – it is so difficult to travel and live without everyone knowing that you need “special food.”

I realize now that the unanticipated public nature of our lifestyle change was, and is, a gift. A gift because we need each other. We need to be vulnerable and share our struggles and triumphs in the hopes of shining a light, throwing a lifeline to someone who is drowning in the loneliness that often defines autoimmune or chronic health conditions, especially those mysterious conditions that are undiagnosed. 

Where to start

Perhaps this article piqued your interest because you’ve never heard of the autoimmune protocol but you or someone you know has an autoimmune disease and might benefit from a lifestyle tailored to reverse your symptoms. Or maybe you or someone you care about has been sick for months or years and the doctors have offered all they can. Or maybe, you’re just looking for a healthier lifestyle for your family and you don’t know where to begin. It might sound extreme at first, but, there’s a really good chance (73%!) that you could feel better than you do right now. If I can do it, you can do it, and I’ll cheer you on every step of the way.

AIP can be confusing at first, so I recommend you begin with the Paleo Mom, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne. The super strict part, which she calls the “elimination phase,” lasts for as long as your body needs to heal. 

Once you eliminate common triggers, it’s very easy to determine what foods are offenders once you begin adding them back to your diet. For instance, I didn’t realize that coffee was making me feel so awful! My husband didn’t realize that the cause of most of his digestive symptoms was eggs. We didn’t realize that corn triggered our daughter’s diarrhea bouts, or that dairy was causing another child’s chronic constipation. 

So the elimination phase was essential to figuring out our triggers. And a bonus of eliminating so much is that once you begin to reintroduce foods, you’ll have a brand new appreciation for “ordinary” foods like eggs, oats, nuts, and coffee. I danced around the kitchen the day we realized that we could all tolerate gluten-free oatmeal. The baking possibilities that re-opened were unimaginable! Christmas morning feels—all because of oatmeal.  It’s important to note that if you can’t tolerate a reintroduction at first, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to tolerate it ever again. AIP is a lifestyle, one that takes a lot of patience with an even bigger payoff. 

I realize now that the unanticipated public nature of our lifestyle change was, and is, a gift. A gift because we need each other.

If you’ve made the decision to begin AIP, you have to set yourself up for success. 

We did this by purging our cupboards, freezer, and fridge. We removed anything that was non-compliant (which, admittedly, was a lot) and donated what we could. Using our meal plan, we made a detailed list of what we needed and stocked some basic pantry essentials. 

Everyone will have their own list of essentials depending on their family’s preferences. And I will say that while we did our best to stay 100% compliant, we also had to respect our budget. That meant choosing non-grass-fed meats or non-organic produce more often than not (even though they’re recommended in the protocol). Ultimately, even small changes will make a big impact on your health! 

Don’t stress about being overly strict. Instead channel that energy into making positive changes and preparing meals ahead of time so you aren’t tempted to cut corners. If you make a mistake, you don’t have to start back at square one. Pick up where you left off and start fresh at the next meal or on the next day. 

At the end of our story, I’ve included a list of breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas (plus two snacks per day) for two weeks. We ate all of these meals and snacks ourselves, and we not only survived—we literally thrived. 

Budgeting and preparing

One thing we were concerned about was how this change was going to affect our budget. But we were actually surprised to find how affordable it is to eat this way! Take a quick breeze through the grocery store and compare prices on a box of oreos and a bag of baby carrots (spoiler: baby carrots are cheaper!!). 

You may be thinking that my kids are incredible eaters and will willingly choose carrots over Oreos. No, no one in their right mind would do that, right? But what if Oreos weren’t an option? What if, instead, you were given a choice between an apple and baby carrots? 

It took time, but we’ve drastically shifted our perspectives and apples are now a treat because Oreos aren’t an option. 

Once we fully stocked our pantry (with items I’ve included in a list below!) we began preparation. What helps us the most is meal planning 1-2 weeks ahead and preparing most of the items 2-3 times a week. 

For example, we make AIP muffins ahead of time for a quick snack, grill chicken at the beginning of the week and have it on hand for a quick throw-together salad when we’re in a pinch, and sometimes we buy pre-cooked sausage for an early morning rush. I try to roast my squashes ahead of time for mid week sautéing, peel carrots and cut other veggies at the beginning of the week, and wash fruit ahead of time. We also make salad dressings and condiments (barbeque and marinara sauce) ahead of time and store them in glass jars in the freezer for quick and easy meals. 

I do most of this on Sunday and once again mid-week both with my husband’s help. We’ve turned it into a special bonding time and often use it to pray together or catch up on our week while we wash vegetables. A rosary takes about 15-20 minutes and we’ve found you can peel a LOT of sweet potatoes in that time! 

We spend hours each week in the kitchen together, something we had never done prior to this lifestyle change, and it has been yet another unexpected gift to our whole family. Our kids are still young but they enjoy getting in on the fun, too. They help cut vegetables, chop kale, peel sweet potatoes, snip green beans, and even meal plan. Bringing the family into the process helps everyone stay motivated and excited.

Remember, this isn’t a quick diet, it’s a lifestyle change and your priorities will have to change to reflect that. Don’t feel guilty if you have to cancel events or change your schedule. You’re prioritizing your health so that you can enjoy *more* down the road when you’re feeling better. 

Within 3 weeks of starting AIP we had a week-long camping trip, my husband’s birthday, our anniversary, two more birthdays, and another family vacation. It was summer time and we picked a difficult time to begin. But is there ever an ideal time to make a drastic life change? There isn’t. So don’t let upcoming plans discourage you.

We navigated all of these big events with minimal changes to our new AIP lifestyle, staying about 90% compliant when traveling.

AIP Apple Crisp is a great go-to dessert for birthdays, Cassava Waffles (made ahead of time) are quick and easy breakfasts when traveling, frozen sausage provides an easy protein in hotel rooms, packable beef jerky and a bag of apples are great on road trips, sugar free fruit juice popsicles are easy birthday treats. Google your favorite food and add, “AIP version”  to it – you’ll be amazed by the creative bakers and chefs of the world who have already done the work for us! 

I made this AIP key lime pie for my husband’s birthday. It was beautiful to behold and a little difficult on the palate, but to this day we still laugh about it and my husband says he will always remember how much love it was made with. It took me about 6 hours to make (with a lot of trial and error!) and truth be told, I’d do it again. 

My biggest worry when we embarked on our AIP journey was how we’d ever be able to re-open the doors to our home to our dear friends and family. Hospitality is one of our favorite gifts to extend, and having moved numerous times over the years we enjoy building community through shared meals and events around the table. I particularly love delivering meals to those who need a helping hand, having been on the receiving end countless times over the years. It is a tangible and pretty simple way to teach the importance of charity to our children, while involving everyone in the family.  My husband jokes that I’m the heart of our hospitality mission, he’s the chef, and our kids are the reason. We can spread love and make the world a better place in our own little communities through simply making a meal. 

We hunkered down for the first two weeks of our journey with AIP and focused solely on our family but as soon as we realized we could cook three meals a day, plus snacks, for our family of six, we felt ready to try our hand at doubling recipes to share with others. 

We hosted our first AIP BBQ a few weeks in, and though I was unusually nervous about hosting, our gracious guests, who had also recently moved to the area, bravely tried everything we offered, even our never-before-attempted homemade BBQ sauce (isn’t it a faux pas to serve a guest something you’ve never made before?) 

Our risk led to a new favorite bbq sauce—and some pretty amazing friends. I’m certainly glad they didn’t mind that we took a chance and to be honest, the uniqueness of our meal served as a perfect conversation starter! The AIP meals that we delivered were accepted with gratitude, though to this day I remain more grateful for the opportunity to get a glimpse of the life of local families. Nothing puts life and gratitude into perspective like delivering a meal to a family grieving the loss of a child or another enduring cancer treatments. Yes, AIP is difficult, but its difficulty pales in comparison to that of those around us. 

To help ease you into shopping for AIP, I’ve created a list of our favorite staples and where to find them. There are many versions of these lists online, some lists more extensive than others (ie, for those who want to bake a lot, or eat seafood more often, etc) but this list contains the items we found most important from the get-go for our streamlined meal planning. 

Our AIP food list: 

Coconut Oil– Aldi, Costco or Trader Joes
Avocado Oil – Aldi or Costco
Arrowroot Powder– to replace cornstarch and other thickeners. Bobs Red Mill or Amazon
Cassava Flour – to replace traditional flours. Ottos or Anthony’s on Amazon
Tigernut Flour – another good flour alternative. Anthony’s on Amazon
Coconut Flour – Anthony’s on Amazon
Sea Salt – Trader Joes has our favorite, but Aldi has a good one too
Full Fat Canned Coconut Milk – with no additives. Trader Joes has the best price and it is 100% compliant with zero gums or additives. 
Apple Cider Vinegar – Aldi or Costco
Raw Honey– Costco or Aldi
Real Maple Syrup – Costco and Sams Club have the best price, local is even better and sometimes cheaper.
Medjool Dates – great for adding sweetness or for a mid-day snack.  Aldi or Costco
Gelatin – as an egg substitute. Great Lakes Brand on Amazon or at the local grocery store
Balsamic Vinegar– Trader Joes or Costco
Fresh herbs (wash, mince, and put into freezer bags so you have fresh herbs readily available at all times). It helps a lot to add flavor!
Coconut Aminos – to replace soy sauce. Trader Joes has the best price, but they can be found at most health food stores.
Nutritional Yeast – to add cheesy flavor to dishes or to use on top of soups. I get mine at Trader Joes (it is fortified with vitamins, so not 100% compliant, but I did my best with the budget we had!)
Chicken, Beef, and Vegetable Broth – We really enjoy Costco’s chicken bone broth. It is delicious in a mug with a little salt, even my kids love bone broth!
Sweet Potato Glass Noodles or Mung Bean Noodles- an excellent alternative to pasta. The texture is perfect and although they don’t have much nutritional value, they really help especially with kids! They can be found online (Thrive Market) or in asian grocery stores
Fresh Vegetables (omit nightshades and corn)
Root Vegetables (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, white asian sweet potatoes). White sweet potatoes are a staple in our home now, we found them at a local market but they are also available at most asian grocery stores. You won’t believe how delicious they are.
Fresh Fruit (limit high sugar fruits like grapes and melons)
Meats – Frozen Sausage (Costco has the best price), Nitrate Free Bacon (Costco/Trader Joes/Aldi), Chicken, Nitrate Free Lunch Meat (Read labels, they can be scary!), High quality beef and pork. While organic, grass fed is recommended you don’t have to break the bank to make healthy changes! We do our best for our budget, which often means we don’t eat grass fed or fully organic.
Sparkling Water – Spindrift and Trader Joes contain real fruit juice for flavor, not “natural flavors” which are…not natural.
Tea – Trader Joe’s has delicious tea options which I love with crushed ice and honey! 

Sample AIP meal plan:

  • Day 1: 
    • Breakfast: Sausage (we use pre cooked Pork sausage from Costco or make our own) or bacon (no nitrates), roasted carrots or sweet potatoes, tea (no coffee allowed) 
    • Snack: Beef stick (Country Archer Jerky Co “Mini Beef Sticks” from Costco) or Canadian bacon and an apple or banana 
    • Lunch: Salad with shrimp or chicken 
    • Snack: Fruit and vegetable 
    • Dinner: Hamburgers (no buns, no ketchup, no mustard) with broiled onions and mushrooms and arugula on top (sautéed in olive oil). Sweet potatoes roasted in oven with coconut or avocado oil and sea salt (cinnamon and honey too if you’d like) 
  • Day 2: 
    • Breakfast: Banana and a few slices of bacon with cup of tea 
    • Snack: Plantain muffin with no sugar added jam (Trader Joes)
      Note on plantain muffins: I make a double batch of these often, they freeze well and I store them in the fridge after thawing. I omit the gelatin egg for ease and I use all shredded carrot instead of carrot and parsnip. They’re easy to adapt too based on what I have in my pantry- for example, I use cooked sweet potato if I don’t have pumpkin purée, or I use honey if I don’t have maple syrup, I also omit the vanilla since it’s expensive to get the alcohol free.
    • Lunch: Leftover hamburgers 
    • Snack: Carrot sticks or plantain chips with AIP dip (many varieties online)   
    • Dinner: Egg Roll Bowl and Apple Crumble 
  • Day 4: 
    • Breakfast: Plantain muffin and Canadian bacon 
    • Snack: Piece of fruit 
    • Lunch: leftover spaghetti squash and extra vegetable 
    • Snack: Cassava chips and meat stick 
    • Dinner: Pulled Pork with AIP BBQ Sauce, Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Bacon 
  • Day 5: 
    • Breakfast: Sweet potato hash: Parboiled sweet potatoes, diced apples, sausage crumbles, cinnamon, and a little maple syrup roasted in a frying pan or oven.  
    • Snack: mug of bone broth 
    • Lunch: Tuna salad (I omit the sardines) with greens 
    • Snack: Carrot cake muffins 
    • Dinner: Use leftover pulled pork and make stir fry with bok choy, water chestnuts, zucchini, AIP stir fry sauce, and sweet potato glass noodles.
  • Day 6: 
    • Breakfast: Quick shake – avocado, ice, banana, dash of maple syrup, full fat coconut milk. 
    • Snack: Leftover muffins or meat stick 
    • Lunch: uncured lunchmeat, vegetables wrapped in lettuce and AIP dressing 
    • Snack: leftover Roasted veggies (ginger glazed carrots are a favorite snack) 
    • Dinner: Zuppa Toscana, Roasted veggies, and fruit salad
  • Day 7:
    • Breakfast: plantain muffin and fruit 
    • Snack: mug of chicken bone broth 
    • Lunch: Leftover soup 
    • Snack: leftover dessert (fruit salad or cobbler)  
    • Dinner: Whitefish with lemon and caper sauce (simple sauce using avocado oil, lemon juice, capers, parsley), zucchini noodles, roasted butternut squash 
  • Day 8: 
    • Breakfast: Sweet potato hash 
    • Snack: Sliced pears 
    • Lunch: ginger meatballs (make ahead) 
    • Snack: leftover butternut squash 
    • Dinner: Grilled chicken and roasted vegetables or Swedish Meatballs 
  • Day 9: 
    • Breakfast: Roasted vegetables from night before and a cup of bone broth 
    • Snack: fresh blueberries and ½ avocado 
    • Lunch: Leftover grilled chicken on salad with beets, raisins or cranberries, apples and vinaigrette. For kids, pan fry leftover chicken strips in bacon grease and serve with a little honey. 
    • Snack: Terra or cassava chips 
    • Dinner: Spaghetti Squash with Marinara Sauce & Meatballs.
      Note on Marinara Sauce: this recipe is really good if you can add some bacon fat, fresh herbs like basil, and some people even say they add a pork chop or two while cooking to get even more depth of flavor. I’ve made it in my insta pot and also in a Cast iron pot, both worked great. I make a double batch and freeze it in jars, you honestly can’t tell the difference from regular sauce. I use it with ground sausage, ground beef, meatballs or just plain and I serve it on top of spaghetti squash. 
  • Day 10: 
    • Breakfast: Butternut soup leftovers 
    • Snack: avocado and cassava chips 
    • Lunch: Turkey burgers with sautéed mushrooms and onions 
    • Snack: cup of bone broth and a piece of fruit 
    • Dinner: Grilled shrimp with balsamic reduction
  • Day 11: 
    • Breakfast: leftover turkey burgers crumbled in skillet with sage and a little maple syrup with side of veggies or avocado 
    • Snack: piece of fruit or muffin 
    • Lunch: AIP Taco bar served in lettuce wraps (make AIP meat ahead of time) and guacamole (OR Beef stew leftovers) 
    • Snack: Terra chips 
    • Dinner: Ham Steak on the grill with AIP BBQ sauce and roasted veggies 
  • Day 12: 
    • Breakfast: White sweet potato hash browns and bacon 
    • Snack: piece of fruit or veggies
    • Lunch: Leftover ham steak and salad 
    • Snack: Roasted veggies 
    • Dinner: Honey garlic chicken with asparagus or other seasonal vegetable 
  • Day 13: 
    • Breakfast: Avocado smoothie or chicken sausage and fried plantains (cinnamon and maple syrup)
    • Snack: beef stick 
    • Lunch: leftover chicken and vegetables on salad 
    • Snack: pumpkin muffin (make ahead) 
    • Dinner:  Balsamic Roast Beef with vegetables 
  • Day 14: 
    • Breakfast: Cassava Waffles (use full fat coconut milk or cream, not coconut drink) and choice of protein  
    • Snack: sliced fruit or veggies 
    • Lunch: Leftover Balsamic Roast Beef with pumpkin muffin 
    • Snack: Bone broth 
    • Dinner: Beef Stroganoff served over sweet potato glass noodles OR for vegetarian option repeat Shrimp, White fish, or Meatless Marinara recipes from above. 

Comments +

  1. Lisa Gruber says:

    Hi Ellen! Thanks so much for writing this article, I have been pouring over your suggested recipes and meal plans, which are very timely for me. Based on this article, I’m trying out AIP for a trial run to help reduce imflammation. I have done a raw food cleanse before and it helped tremendously. I am hoping the AIP will be something I can more easily integrate into my lifestyle long-term. Admittedly my head is swimming with these new and different ingredients! I will let you know how it goes. ( : Thanks so much and great job!


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