May 23, 2024

Holistic Pulse

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Autoimmune Disease Diets: Types and Benefits

3 min read

There’s no one accepted definition of an “autoimmune diet”—one that can help quell the symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and lupus. However, some research has suggested that eating foods like fruits, fish, and whole grains may benefit people with autoimmune conditions.

Although there are common threads to so-called autoimmune disease diets—for example, most include anti-inflammatory foods—specific dietary changes must be tailored to the person. Here’s a snapshot of some of the more popular autoimmune diets, including what they are and what foods you may or may not eat if you follow them.

One study found that an anti-inflammatory diet positively affected disease activity in people with RA. Anti-inflammatory diet foods can include:

  • Fish
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

Foods should be as natural as possible, such as ocean-caught fish, Zhaoping Li, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, told Health.

The popular diet advocates a return to the types of foods our Paleolithic ancestors ate. With this diet, you avoid ultra-processed foods and consume more:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Lean meat and seafood
  • Nuts and olive oil

Though research is limited, available studies have suggested that the Paleo diet can help manage autoimmune diseases. Parts of the diet are helpful for digestion, immune response control, and inflammation.

The autoimmune protocol diet (AIP) is an extreme version of the Paleo diet. The AIP follows an elimination protocol where different food groups that might contribute to inflammation are removed from the diet and then slowly added back in.

Still, there’s no standard for implementing these elimination protocols. Some protocols are severe, pulling out multiple food groups at one time, Alicia Romano, RD, a registered clinical dietitian at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told Health.

There’s not a lot of specific research on the link between the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and autoimmune diseases. However, the DASH diet may help people with autoimmune conditions since some of the foods are found in an anti-inflammatory diet. For this diet, you focus on eating:

  • Beans and nuts
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Fish and poultry
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Vegetable oils
  • Whole grains

You’ll also limit high-saturated-fat foods, sweets, and sugary drinks.

Gluten is the name for proteins in wheat, rye, and barley. They damage the small intestine of people with celiac disease, another autoimmune condition. The only way to manage celiac disease is to avoid gluten, which may be found in products such as:

  • Bread or baked goods
  • Pasta
  • Soups
  • Sauces or salad dressings

Going gluten-free helps people with celiac disease who also have other autoimmune diseases. One small study found benefits to a gluten-free diet in women with autoimmune thyroid issues, for example.

The anti-inflammatory diet is similar to the much-touted Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to lower the risk of chronic disease and extend lifespan. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are a few main staples of the diet. However, you also focus on eating:

  • Dairy products
  • Fish and small amounts of meat
  • Olive oil, condiments, and spices

There is evidence that plant-based diets can generally benefit people with autoimmune diseases, as shown in a study on RA and a study on lupus.

Plant-based diets are ones where plant-based foods are the primary part of the diet. For example, someone following a vegetarian way of eating won’t eat meat but may consume eggs and dairy, which are animal products. Someone following a vegan lifestyle won’t eat any animal products. A person may also eat a mostly plant-based diet but:

  • Focus on plant-based whole foods only
  • Include seafood—known as pescetarianism
  • Include occasional dairy, meat, and seafood—known as flexitarianism

Autoimmune disease diets can offer possible relief from some autoimmune conditions. However, you don’t necessarily have to follow a specific autoimmune diet to reap those benefits. The autoimmune diet that works best will vary depending on the person. “[However], the patients that are willing to take the time to investigate their symptoms and improve their overall diet quality seem to do the best,” said Romano.

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