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Last year I wrote an article called, “What is AIP? The Definitive Guide,” and a comment was left there by a reader asking for similar in-depth guidance, but on the topic of “falling off the wagon.” That person said, “It would be great to hear from you on how to bounce back, without feeling like a failure.” Funnily enough, I had been planning on writing about the topic, but it was the genuineness in asking for help in that comment that got my wheels really turning. They’ve been turning for 10 months now! I found so much interesting information on the topic and before I was ready to write, I needed time to synthesize it with what I see in my health coaching practice. All that to say, to that original reader who reached out, thanks for the patience!
Before we get started, I think it’s important that I state right away how much I dislike the phrase “fell off the wagon” as a health coach. I am fully aware that the vast majority of folks, at one point or another, in their quests to make big life changes of any kind, will struggle with motivation, face circumstances that might require diverging from intended goals, etc., so my dislike isn’t about this phrase being a cop out, because it isn’t always an excuse. I don’t like it, because it is such passive language and I know empowerment is where it’s at in terms of making big changes. With that disclaimer out of the way, we can go back to using the phrase in this article for semantic ease while acknowledging that more empowering language is usually better.
Let’s jump in! Here are 10 tips to help you stay on the AIP wagon:
1. Assess your readiness.
I think one of the best ways to stay on the AIP wagon is to carefully evaluate how ready you are for the changes in the first place. In the late 1970’s, two researchers, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, were studying how to help people quit smoking and in that process developed the “Stages of Change” model. What they found is that change is slow, back sliding will happen, and that people resist change in early stages, but ultimately commit in later stages.
There are six stages:
During pre-contemplation you aren’t even aware there is anything wrong that needs addressed. In the contemplation stage you know there is something wrong that needs addressed, but you’re ambivalent about doing anything about it. In the preparation stage, you start gathering information and determine you do want to address it.
If you’re in the pre-contemplation stage, you won’t be on this website. However, if you are in the contemplation stage, you might be reading this and weighing the costs and benefits of AIP. Many people get stuck in this stage, but one way to move beyond it is to start evaluating the merits of trying AIP on what you will gain versus what you will give up. If you are really struggling to see any gain, you may not be ready to move to the next stage.
If you’re in the preparation stage, you would definitely be reading this article, trying to gather more information about AIP. If you want to help ensure that you really do commit to AIP, you can take time in this stage to clarify why want to try AIP, come up with an action plan, and get support and resources built up around you.
2. Clarify your “why”.
So, let’s say you determine you are in the contemplation stage of behavior change. One method of moving beyond this stage is to focus on the gains you can potentially make with AIP. You can do this visually:
- Draw a matrix of four boxes. At the top of the first column write “Advantages” and at the top of the second column write “Disadvantages.” To the left of the first row write “No changes” and to the left of the second row write “Changes.” Fill in the boxes according to the matrix. Hopefully you are able to identify lots of advantages to making the change and lots of disadvantages to not making the change, this may help you move forward with less difficulty.
If you determined you are in the preparation stage of behavior change, you know that you can help yourself move into the action stage by clarifying why you want to try AIP, but how do you do that in a structured way? Again, it can be helpful to visualize when looking for clarity:
- Create a very detailed description or even a vision board collage of your “future self.” This person has already committed to AIP and has seen some health wins. Imagine this person feeling better and having expanded wellness, happiness, and opportunity. This clarity may allow you to take action more sustainably.
3. Determine your tendency and transition style.
Notice that my first three tips for staying on the AIP wagon all apply to the period before you actually start AIP. As a coach I think it’s not only okay, it’s actually very wise to put in a lot of assessment work prior to even beginning, in order to help your AIP experience (or any big change process, for that matter) go more smoothly.
With this tip I recommend you first determine your tendency. By “tendency” I am referring to researcher and author, Gretchen Rubin’s, personality profile framework that shows how people handle inner and outer expectations. You can take a quiz to learn about your tendency here. Understanding your tendency can help you more effectively adopt AIP. If you continue to explore Rubin’s work to assist you in behavior change, you’ll find there are some other traits that you identify about yourself to help the process. You can read about my take on two of them, moderating or abstaining, as they apply to staying on the AIP wagon here.
Additionally, I think it’s important to understand whether you are the kind of person who is better suited to a cold-turkey or a slow-and-steady transition to AIP. Most people think they are suited to cold-turkey (making the change overnight or in only a few short days), but based on my experience coaching thousands of people, the vast majority of folks are better suited to slow-and-steady (making the change in a phased process over weeks or months). If you happen to have a copy of my co-authored book, The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook, you can take the quiz provided in Chapter 3 to help you decide your transition style. If you don’t have the book things to consider are:
- your schedule
- household makeup and needs
- severity of your autoimmune symptoms
- past success with rapid change
- how comfortable/experienced you are with food preparation
4. Begin to “habit stack.”
Okay, so what if you are beyond contemplating or preparing? There are tips you can try during the action and maintenance stages of change to help you stick to AIP. One of these tips is called “habit stacking.” This idea relies on a concept in neuroscience called “synaptic pruning,” where the brain gets rid of connections between neurons that don’t get used and reinforces connections that get used often. By tying the new habits you are adopting to old habits that are already in place, you make it more likely that you’ll do it automatically (which will use up less willpower, more on that later).
Some examples of habit stacking with AIP would be:
- After I use the bathroom in the morning, I’ll drink a large glass of water.
- Before I get in bed, I’ll do a meditation.
- After I grocery shop on Sundays, I will prepare a batch of soup.
- Before I open emails for work, I’ll warm up bone broth to sip.
5. Employ “urge surfing.”
“Urge surfing” is a technique that Alan Marlatt, another 1970’s smoking cessation researcher, uses to help people who are overcoming addictions. It might seem a little extreme to use addiction recovery references when we are talking about staying on the AIP wagon, but it’s actually very applicable.
The first thing to do is recognize that having an urge or craving for a food or old lifestyle habit you are attempting to eliminate is completely normal. It’s not an indication that something is wrong, it’s just a part of behavior change. With this in mind, view the urge like a wave, which will have a peak before crashing down. As Marlatt explains, “People tend to think that urges will escalate infinitely if they don’t yield to them — but in fact, like a wave, they rise to a peak and then fall. That is, even if you don’t give in, the urge dissipates.”
Every time you let the wave pass without giving in it diminishes that neural connection (remember synaptic pruning?). Doing it once makes it easier the next time. I experienced this first-hand when I stopped smoking (GASP! Angie smoked!). Although I was never a heavy, daily smoker, I did smoke socially throughout my 20’s. When I stopped, I remember distinctly being out with friends one evening and I literally sat on my hands to keep from grabbing a cigarette. I made it through that night without giving in to the urge. After that it was very easy to continue not caving to the old habit, because I’d successfully surfed the wave. In fact, I never smoked again!
6. Do not sprint.
Here’s a word to the wise, even if you determine your transition style is cold-turkey, AIP is not a sprint. Any health and wellness journey, especially one where you’re aiming to improve autoimmune disease, takes considerable time and effort. It is a marathon. Don’t overdo it with your efforts early on, instead accept that getting to the “expert level” stuff will require a long-term approach and sustained energy.
7. Utilize convenience and inconvenience.
You will use up less willpower (getting to it soon) if you make staying on the AIP wagon convenient and falling off the AIP wagon inconvenient. Humans are pretty darn partial to paths of least resistance. If you take planning and preparation seriously (KEY to AIP success here!), then it will be convenient for you to grab food that supports your health when you are hungry and don’t have a lot of time. You’ll have built space in your schedule to work on lifestyle aspects of the protocol so you can practice them. If the non-AIP foods are just waiting in your pantry or worse yet, there is nothing ready at home, but pizza and a liter of soda is just a phone call away, the inconvenience of sticking with AIP will quickly override willpower. If your schedule is overflowing with commitments, many of them not truly necessary, and there is no space in the day, or night, to practice new lifestyle habits, it’s much more convenient to just let it slide. Figure out how to make the behavior change convenient.
8. Don’t rely on willpower alone.
There is some conflicting research on whether or not willpower is a finite resource. Some researchers say it is and some say it isn’t. I’ve read lots supporting both sides, but as a coach I see repeatedly that willpower is finite, so I’ve adapted my approach to teaching folks not to rely on it solely. Instead of focusing on whether or not you’re strong enough to make or sustain a change (you are strong enough, but your strength is not limitless), focus on specific methods that help you maintain willpower. Note that tips 4-7 are those kinds of specific methods.
9. Accept that setbacks will occur.
Okay, so up to this point we talked about ways to avoid “cheating” to begin with, both prior to and during the process of adopting AIP. But we know based the “Stages of Change” model that relapse, falling back into old patterns, is so common it’s an acknowledged stage.
If you find yourself here, the best thing to do is immediately return to the new habit at the very next opportunity (in our case with AIP, that might be your next meal) and use something called motivational interviewing (a way to identify, examine, and resolve barriers to behavior change) to help yourself gather information about why the setback happened and how to course correct. Usually this means asking questions like:
- What triggered me?
- What are my barriers?
- How do I prepare for or overcome these obstacles?
- Do I need to pivot on my goals?
10. Reward effort over results.
Notice that in tip nine I included the question, “Do I need to pivot on my goals?” I included that because something I see often as a coach is people choosing goals for themselves that are largely out of their control and then if they cannot reach the goal, throwing in the towel, without any recognition of all the work they’ve already put in.
An example of a goal out of your control is, “I will reach remission by July,” while an example of a goal in your control is, “I will eat at least one nutrient-dense food per day.” While you may not reach remission by July, consistent effort to include nutrient-dense foods in your diet will lead to some kind of positive result. Acknowledging and celebrating consistency of effort can help you quickly get back on the AIP wagon, because it puts the focus on the right area. Knowing that results come from consistent, even if imperfect effort helps you pivot to a more suitable goal, rather than spiral.
11. Don’t be extravagant about inadequacy.
This is a bonus tip. If you stumble with AIP, do not indulge in a bunch of negative self-talk, telling yourself things like:
- I’m lazy.
- I knew I’d just be an AIP failure.
- I’m not capable of doing anything healthy for myself.
I used words like “extravagant” and “indulgent” to describe this kind of talk on purpose, because it’s such an unnecessary and ineffective way of navigating behavior change. That kind of over-the-top guilt allows you to wallow, rather than act. If you fall off the AIP wagon, remind yourself that self-respect is critical to successful change. If it’s very difficult for you to be self-respecting, that might be a sign that adding a professional counselor to your team would be helpful.
There we go! Those are my tips for staying on the AIP wagon. Let me know, does understanding this process from a health coaching perspective help you navigate AIP, stumbles and all, without feeling like a failure?