An extension of the paleo diet, an autoimmune protocol diet (AIP diet) is a fairly new style of eating that some people think may help reduce inflammation and manage chronic disease. But what exactly does AIP entail and does it even work? Here’s what science has to say.
What is the AIP Diet?
The autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet is a dietary approach that some people believe promotes gut health and reduces inflammation associated with autoimmune disorders like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), crohn's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Autoimmune refers to any health condition or disease in which your body's own immune system attacks itself because it is unable to distinguish between harmful invaders and substances naturally present in your body.
Protocol refers to a procedure or system for carrying out a course of medical treatment or scientific experiment.
AIP is not intended to be a lifelong diet approach or lifestyle. It is intended to be a multi-phase approach to managing autoimmune symptoms through the foods you eat.
Food wise, AIP is similar to a paleo diet with some added restrictions. However, many of the restricted foods on AIP may be added back into your diet after the elimination phase if you find you are able to tolerate them without symptoms.
Who Started the (Autoimmune Protocol) AIP Diet?
The concept of the autoimmune protocol diet was thought to be started by Loren Cordain, PhD, a celebrated founder of the paleo diet, and made popular by author, Robb Wolf.
Since it has been adopted by numerous bloggers and few academics like Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (who earned her doctorate degree in medical biophysics).
However, it is important to note that AIP has still not been widely accepted by the medical community as a viable approach to autoimmune disease, gut health, or any other health condition, and it is far from evidenced based at this stage.
For trusted advice on whether or not an AIP diet is right for you, always speak with your primary health care provider or RD.
How Does the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Work?
AIP is intended to be used as an elimination diet, meaning you follow strict food guidelines for a certain time period before slowly adding certain foods back into your diet.
Typically all suggested foods are eliminated for a few weeks and then individual foods are added back in one by one. If symptoms return or increase, it is recommended you remove that food from your diet entirely.
The allowed foods for AIP are similar to paleo diet with a few added restrictions - mainly the elimination of nightshades like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
- Grass-fed, sustainably caught proteins
- Nuts and Seeds
- Sweet potatoes
- Most vegetables
- Fermented foods like fermented vegetables
- Bone broth
Popular AIP Diet Health Claims
Proponents of the AIP diet believe that heavily processed, modern foods like grains, dairy products, sugar, alcohol, and even coffee cause increased inflammation in the intestines, which, in turn, create micro sized holes and result in a condition referred to as “leaky gut”.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), on the other hand, is a documented condition and some research suggests certain foods may cause more irritation than others. Mainly the typical American diet high in refined carbohydrates, omega-6 fatty acids, and saturated fat, and lacking in overall nutrition (3).
However, adapting your style of eating to reduce your intake of things like saturated fat, sugar, and processed foods, does not reach far beyond what is commonly recommended as the standard approach to healthy eating and following a more restrictive approach like AIP may not be warranted.
Does AIP Work?
Although it sounds promising, the research is lacking when it comes to this specific anti-inflammatory diet and its desired impact on autoimmune conditions. The connection between metabolism and the immune system is complex and scientists are only beginning to tap into their understanding of it (5).
Essentially, autoimmune conditions cause the immune system to attack and damage its own healthy tissues, leading to increased inflammation in the body. The direct cause and specific symptoms associated with each type of autoimmune disorder can vary widely, and it is likely so does the approach for effective management of these symptoms.
Most of the existing science surrounding anti-inflammatory diets like AIP is from small, limited studies or done on mice not humans.
Two studies that are commonly referenced as support for the AIP diet include the following:
- In 2017 a study on 15 adults with IBD suggested that dietary modification using an autoimmune protocol may reduce symptoms and improve some signs of inflammation. While these conclusions may seem intriguing at first glance, these results don’t actually tell us much because the study is so small and is uncontrolled, meaning there wasn’t a group of similar patients that didn’t receive the diet. Larger randomized controlled trials need to be performed to find out if the diet really can make these differences (6).
- Another small study in 2019 looked at the impact of an AIP diet alongside a health coaching program in 17 women with hypothyroidism. Authors reported that these women experienced increased quality of life and reduced symptoms of hypothyroidism. However, testing showed no improvements in thyroid function. This study was also not randomized or controlled (7).
While both of these studies can appear promising, they are far from conclusive.
Much more research is needed to determine whether or not AIP is a valid approach to reducing inflammation in the body
Should You Try an AIP Diet?
While many experts can agree diet and lifestyle factors likely play a role in chronic disease, we just don’t have enough supporting evidence to show that following an AIP meal plan is truly beneficial to autoimmune disorders.
Additionally, following a super restrictive eating plan, like AIP, can be difficult to maintain. Even though some foods can be added back into the diet, the overall approach restricts a large number of popular food items that can feel impossible to avoid - especially when it comes to social gatherings, temptations, and food cravings.
Moreover, cutting out entire food groups can also lead to potential nutritional deficiencies. Whole grains and dairy are nutritious foods, and eliminating them entirely might cause you to miss out on key vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins (8).
That being said, it likely isn’t harmful to your health to try an AIP meal plan as long as you're making sure you are meeting all of your micronutrient needs. For some, AIP could mean reducing their intake of heavily processed foods and increasing their consumption of nutritious whole foods, leading to improved nutrition and better long term health.
If you suffer from an autoimmune condition or you're curious about any potential benefits of following an elimination diet like AIP, talk with your primary health care provider to see if it makes sense for you.
Trusted Advice Based on Science
It is still not well understood if or how diet plays a role in chronic inflammation and a lot more research is needed.
Some limited research suggests that cutting back on certain foods high in saturated fats, sugar, and processed oils may help reduce symptoms associated with IBD - especially when they are substituted with nutrient dense whole foods (9). However, this approach doesn’t differ from basic healthy diet principles.
Learning how to follow a basic healthy diet can do wonders for your nutrition, wellbeing, and reducing your risk of all diet related chronic disease. And following an AIP diet may not be warranted or necessary.
Want more expert advice on how to manage your health with good nutrition? Check out our Trifecta Health Community for more tools and resources to explore.