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Today we are going to tackle one of the biggest misconceptions about the Autoimmune Protocol — that it is a way of eating that relies primarily on meat and animal products at the expense of vegetables (not true!). A part of this misconception has been carried over from the AIP movement’s connection to the Paleo movement. In fact, although there are various ways of implementing the Autoimmune Protocol, there has always been consensus in our community that AIP is a way of eating that forms its foundation on eating plant foods in the form of vegetables. In other words, it is in fact a plant-based protocol.
In today’s article, I’m going to clarify the vegetable vs. meat recommendations on the Autoimmune Protocol and share my perspective as someone who followed a vegan diet for 10 years.
I firmly believe that high-quality and well-sourced meat and seafood are not only excellent sources of nutrients (especially for someone in the healing process), but supporting regenerative agriculture is also a key part of addressing our climate crisis (yes, you heard that right!). Getting into this point is beyond the scope of this article, but if you’d like to learn more I recommend checking out the work of Diana Rogers, RD and her new book and documentary on this topic, Sacred Cow.
My history as a vegan
I have a long history with plant-based diets, as I was vegan (someone who does not eat any animal products) for some of my teen years and most of my 20s. While I felt great when I initially implemented this way of eating, nearly 10 years later and having been newly diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases at the age of 26 (Hashimoto’s and celiac), I found myself in an incredibly deep health crisis of which nutrient deficiencies had a major role to play. (You can read more about my story here and listen to this podcast episode to get the full picture of what I experienced). At my rock bottom I was bedridden and unable to work, and had no treatment options for my new diagnoses.
For most of my youth I had expected to be healthy since I ate a whole-foods, plant-based diet consisting primarily of home-cooked meals. When I asked my doctors if my diet could be playing a role in my health conditions, they told me I was eating the healthiest diet there was and that there was no connection. Despite this advice, deep down, I knew that there was a possibility that eating animal foods once again would make me feel better, and it turns out, I was right. After a slow transition to eating animal foods and implementing the elimination phase of AIP, I was able to regain my health and reverse those deep-seated nutrient deficiencies I developed both due to my autoimmune conditions and my 10-year vegan diet.
One of the first things I noticed in my dietary shift from vegan to AIP was that I was now eating more vegetables in the elimination phase of AIP than I had on my previous vegan diet. A LOT more. I noticed one of my friends, Stacy Toth of Real Life Paleo, who also had a history of eating a vegan diet, using the hashtag #morevegetablesthanavegetarian on her meal photos on Instagram and I started thinking about how interesting it was that I was no longer eating a vegan diet, but I was eating WAY more vegetables.
How could that be? Well, even on my previous whole-food based vegan diet, I was eating a lot of grains and legumes. Even when I removed gluten after being diagnosed with celiac disease, I was eating lots of gluten-free, vegan grains and legumes like quinoa, rice, corn, lentils, black beans, and more. These ingredients formed the base of my diet–not vegetables. When I transitioned to AIP, this was flipped as I was now consuming primarily vegetables with added animal products.
AIP’s plant-based roots
The researchers who are responsible for forming the Autoimmune Protocol into what it is known as today have advocated for a high vegetable intake from the very beginning.
Dr. Sarah Ballantyne has been advocating for eating over 8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day since before her ground-breaking guide to AIP, The Paleo Approach, came out in 2014. Dr. Terry Wahls, whose book is an AIP must-have, has advocated for at least nine cups of fruits and vegetables per day–three cups leafy green vegetables, three cups sulfur-rich vegetables, and three cups colorful fruits and vegetables, since her book was launched in 2013. That is a LOT of vegetables, friends!
If you are following these expert recommendations, there isn’t much space left on your plate for anything BUT vegetables. And that is the point!
How much meat should I eat on AIP?
Now you are probably asking the big question–how much meat should I eat on AIP?
First, the Autoimmune Protocol is an incredibly flexible template, and the amount of animal foods you need to thrive is going to be dependent on your personal history, lifestyle, and goals.
Here are some situations where eating more meat might be helpful:
- When you are looking to reverse long-standing nutrient deficiencies. Especially when those nutrients are plentiful in animal foods – like iron, zinc, and b12.
- When you have a higher protein need. This may apply to athletes and pregnant women.
- When you are intolerant to many vegetables. This may be due to a gut infection that needs to be treated by a medical provider (like FODMAPs in the case of SIBO), or due to a physical alteration in your GI tract (such as raw or high-fiber foods in the case of a stricture).
- When you have issues with blood sugar regulation. Those who have a history of eating a higher-carbohydrate, processed-food diet may want to up protein intake for a time while their blood-sugar regulation improves.
Here are some situations where eating less meat might be helpful:
- When your food budget doesn’t allow for a lot of high-quality animal foods. In this case, prioritizing your dollars on the most nutrient-dense, high-quality options (like organ meats) can be helpful for meeting your nutrient needs.
- When you have a health issue that requires you to eat less protein. This isn’t super common, but there are some conditions (like kidney disease) where your medical providers may advise you to reduce your protein intake.
- When you want to reduce your reliance on animal protein for ethical reasons. This might look like prioritizing the types and quality of animal protein to easily meet your nutrient needs, without consuming much excess.
For most people starting the Autoimmune Protocol, aiming for 15-20% of calories as protein is a good place to start. Depending on your size and intake, this is in the range of 6-12 ounces of protein per day, and you can increase or decrease from there depending on your needs.
Dr. Sarah Ballantyne uses a visual recommendation for protein, aiming for ⅔-¾ of your plate as vegetables, and ⅓-¼ animal foods or seafood.
Personally, I eat around 8 ounces of protein per day, around 3-4 ounces at breakfast and 4-5 ounces at dinner. I typically have a vegetarian meal (a big salad!) for lunch. In the early days of healing, I consumed much more protein, around 8-16 ounces per day, as I was reversing many nutrient deficiencies and had serious issues with blood sugar regulation. As my health improved I found that I continued to experience benefits even when I decreased the amount of protein I was eating in my diet, and I could easily go between meals without snacking.
If you are looking for another resource for determining the makeup of your AIP template, Eileen Laird of Phoenix Helix has an AIP Food Pyramid you may find helpful.
Can I try AIP as a vegan or plant-based eater?
Despite its heavy reliance on vegetables, AIP is not a vegetarian or vegan protocol, and it is unsafe to implement it as so.
The elimination phase of AIP removes grains, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds, and eggs, which still leaves room for a person to get all of the nutrients they need (and then some!) from plant, animal, and seafoods. This same elimination phase, implemented to also remove all animal and seafoods becomes unsafe when there are no other good sources of protein and specific nutrients (like iron and B12) in the diet.
To implement AIP safely without eating animal foods, you need to be able to eat enough seafood to meet your minimum protein and nutrient needs. I’ve seen this approach work well for some people, as well as others who are willing to eat some poultry, but avoid red meat. If you can’t make this happen and still want to try an elimination diet, I recommend working with a nutrition professional to help guide you in a customized template that will be safe for you to implement.
A note on ketogenic and carnivore diets
I also want to mention two layers some folks are commonly curious about: ketogenic and carnivore.
Ketogenic diets are typically low in vegetables but can include some non-starchy vegetables. They avoid all starchy vegetables and most fruits. There is some research that a ketogenic approach can be helpful specifically in neurological recovery or brain injuries, but in general, they are not recommended for those with autoimmune disease. Dr. Sarah Ballantyne does a great job outlining the downsides (mostly the negative impact on the microbiome) in this blog post. If you decide to try a ketogenic approach within the framework of AIP, I recommend making sure you focus on lots of those non-starchy vegetables and healthy fats to avoid overeating meat.
A carnivore diet is one where a person is exclusively eating meat and no plant foods. I definitely think this is a dangerous approach that is not supportive of the microbiome, not to mention completely misses the vegetable-forward side of AIP that is so powerful in cultivating health–lots of vitamins and minerals, various types of fiber to support gut health, not to mention all of those incredible antioxidants. If you decide to embark on this approach, proceed with caution.
Always… think about nutrient density!
There is also a discussion to be had about quality as it relates to nutrient density. Animal foods are not equal when it comes to the nutrients they contain, and when you make an effort to get the most high-quality and nutrient-dense ingredients, that means that you can eat less animal foods in general and still eat a diet that deeply supports your healing process.
Personally, this is the approach I take, as I don’t like to consume any more animal foods than are necessary. I prioritize my food budget to include wild-caught, fatty fish, shellfish, grass-fed and pastured meat, and organ meats. Because some of these foods are exceptionally nutrient dense (like the oily fish, shellfish, and organ meats) and I make a point to include them in my diet often, I can get away with eating less animal foods overall.
Some of you may not resonate with this piece, but having been vegan for so long I struggled a lot with including animal foods in my diet again. Not only have I come to realize that not all meat is created equal, but also that I don’t need to be wasteful in my consumption of it. By prioritizing my purchases with local farmers who treat their animals well (or raising our own, which my family is experimenting with), not only do I get the benefit of knowing where the meat came from, but I view it with gratitude that it is the best medicine I can take.
You might be thinking… well, can’t I just get those nutrients from supplements? My experience hasn’t been great there. If you are looking to learn more about this, I recommend checking out my article five reasons why you should get your nutrition from real food before supplements.
Tell me in the comments: What has your experience been at shifting your diet to the AIP template? Do you find you eat more vegetables now than you did before? Have you tried different amounts of protein intake in your approach? I’d love to know what works for you!