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At this point we all know there’s a global pandemic and most of us have been sheltering-in-place and practicing social distancing for at least a month, if not longer, in a collective effort to help take strain off our medical system. Millions of folks are suddenly working from home while homeschooling their kids, and the impact of non-essential business closures is rippling through the economy, creating additional sources of stress. All of that doesn’t even touch on the fear associated with you, a family member, or a friend getting ill or even dying from COVID-19. In a completely unprecedented situation like this one, should we even try AIP? If so, why . . . and how!?
Although I’ve never been a health coach during a pandemic (nobody else has either!), I have been coaching long enough to have had many of my clients and group members go through crisis situations, including natural disasters. That experience helped me quickly pivot with my most recent group of SAD to AIP in SIX members (who started their six-week program literally at the exact moment the outbreak began in the US) to teaching why AIP was still worthwhile and how to make the smartest modifications for their journey during a uniquely challenging time. Today I want to expand on what I taught my group members and share that with the whole community in an effort to ease the strain some of you might be experiencing while you attempt to AIP during a pandemic.
Why Even Try AIP During a Pandemic?
There aren’t any measures that will make us “bullet-proof” when it comes to a brand new virus that none of our bodies have ever encountered. That said, those of us who’ve already been utilizing an AIP template for years can probably attest, improving our baseline health has made us much more resilient in the face of illness. Very simply, AIP is a dietary and lifestyle protocol that has a powerful impact on immune system health. It’s equivalent to “the best defense is a good offense.”
The things we emphasize on AIP, like a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet, quality sleep, good stress management, appropriate movement, and connection to others and nature, all have enormous, research-validated effects on our immune function. If you haven’t ever seen the research and you feel skeptical, take a look at all the evidence shared by our Medical Director, Dr. Rob Abbott, here on our site or check out what we present in our book, The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook. If you prefer to go further look at all the online and book format information shared by our friends The Paleo Mom, Chris Kresser, or Dr. Terry Wahls.
There’s really no disagreement about how much dietary and lifestyle protocols like AIP impact immune health, which is not only helpful in managing your autoimmune disease, but also pretty darn helpful if you are trying to give your body a head start during a viral outbreak. That’s the reason to try AIP, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
But Trying to AIP Right Now Is Stressful!
Okay, we all agree that AIP can be a major positive for immune system health. That’s great for managing autoimmune disease and probably pretty worthwhile during a pandemic. I think we could probably also all agree that starting a big dietary and lifestyle change right now sounds super stressful! One of the most common things I’ve said as a health coach over the years is, “Life never gives us a perfect moment to focus on our health. Jump in anyway.” To be fair, I did NOT have a global pandemic in mind every time I gave that encouragement. It is a lot to make these changes right now.
So, how in the heck do we reconcile these two truths? Here’s how:
1. Be reasonable. As I mentioned, I have had many group members go through personal crises over the years, including natural disasters. Some of these people lost homes or loved ones and what I emphasized to those members, applies to all of us now: No dietary protocol, including AIP, is more important than an emergency. Do what you must to feed yourself in the moment. Healing ground can be covered once the crisis has passed. With that in mind, assess your personal situation and make the most reasonable choices on what dietary or lifestyle changes you can or cannot implement.
2. Make modifications. There are some smart ways to modify the AIP template that will allow you to support your immune system and make positive progress on your overall health baseline, while still being manageable in terms of our new daily realities and sensitive to stress thresholds. Allow yourself the space to consider these modifications as a good middle ground until a later point when implementing a fuller AIP approach feels more achievable.
How To Make Smart AIP Modifications During a Pandemic
Some of you were already well into your AIP journey when the pandemic hit. You might even be in the reintroduction phase and learning about what your personal dietary approach will look like as you try bringing various foods back in. Or you might even be an “old timer” in this community, like Mickey and I, with a really clear idea on what works and doesn’t and have your health in a place that allows a lot of flexibility with food. If these descriptions sound like you, much of the following advice might not be as necessary for you, as you’ve already got enough understanding of the protocol and your body to navigate even a pandemic without too much stress.
However, I know that a lot of our readers are beginners, some of you just now deciding to give AIP a shot. Maybe you’ve already begun transitioning to the elimination phase of the protocol, but you’re only a few days or weeks in or maybe you are in the maintenance phase, hoping to maintain eliminations for 30-90 days, but feeling unsure how to keep it up in such a stressful time. The following advice is especially aimed at you if the “beginner” description fits.
These modifications are a combination of what I think is “most reasonable” during the pandemic and based on my observations after many years of coaching on what modifications are most or least problematic long-term. They are also meant to help you feel less stressed as you navigate shelter-in-place orders or experience difficulty with food sourcing in your area. Finally, this modification advice is meant to be psychologically practical at a time of universally high-stress, while also still being psychically supportive to your body.
- If you need to make compromises due to limited availability of fresh carbohydrate dense veggies or due to a need for shelf-stable carbohydrate sources, incorporate white rice. It is typically well-tolerated and cooking it in broth with a fat source (coconut or olive oil) will help with the low nutrient status and blood sugar impact.
- Consider both dried, canned, and frozen legumes (like green beans, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, etc.), if need arises. Dried legumes can be soaked and sprouted (here is a very comprehensive guide) to increase digestibility. In this situation don’t worry about preservatives/additives in canned legumes.
- White potatoes can be stored in a dark place longer than many other veggies and are a good carb source to consider, if necessary. However, be sure they are peeled as most of the glycoalkaloid that is problematic, especially for those with autoimmune disease, is in the peel.
- Unless you have clear intolerance, don’t stress over the elimination of coffee or high-quality chocolate until the pandemic situation has passed. Coffee and chocolate are some of those things that likely feel psychologically extra difficult to eliminate in this situation as such comforting anchors for many. There is a big caveat here though . . . don’t lie to yourself about that intolerance. If you are struggling with serious anxiety, insomnia, blood sugar dysregulation, or already very fatigued adrenals, caffeine is NOT your friend, especially right now.
- If sourcing meat is difficult, compromise on eggs as a nutrient-dense protein source.
- If you find otherwise compliant foods, but they include black pepper as an ingredient, don’t worry about it. (Example: Pre-made broth.)
- Don’t compromise on gluten. If you have an autoimmune disease, gluten is very likely going to leave you in bad shape and vulnerable in terms of immune health.
- Don’t compromise on alcohol. Alcohol, like coffee and chocolate, can have a big psychological pull in this situation. However, unlike coffee and chocolate, there are less redeeming qualities to alcohol and the immediate negative impacts on gut (and thus immune) health are huge.
- Don’t compromise on nightshades (with the exception of white potato), as they are typically not well-tolerated and might produce a long-lasting flare.
- Don’t compromise on dairy. Especially early in the healing process it is not typically well-tolerated and it doesn’t keep long anyway.
- Don’t compromise on a low-sugar approach, since a sugar-heavy diet impairs immune function.
- If you are early in the healing process try not to compromise on eating nuts & seeds, but if it becomes a necessary energy source, make the smartest choices for your individual tolerance.
Now that we got through the smart modifications that can make AIP manageable for beginners, even during a pandemic, let’s talk about some helpful tips for everyone as we deal with restricted routines, unexpected food sourcing issues, and a need to stock-up.
- Do not worry about organic fruits and veg as compared to non-organic. Peel non-organic.
- When you are able to grocery shop, head to the store with a list of broad produce categories as compared to a defined list. For example, your categories might look like “hardy greens” (like kale, chard, or collards), “salad greens” (like arugula, spinach, or lettuce), “fruit” (like apples, bananas, oranges), “roots, tubers, or winter squash” (like carrots, parsnips, beets, sweet potatoes, or butternut), “fresh herbs and spices” (like basil, thyme, garlic, shallots, onions), etc. When it comes to produce also consider frozen or canned veggies.
- Do not worry about grass-fed meat or wild-caught seafood as compared to conventionally raised meat or farmed fish. If you have to choose conventional or farmed, trim and drain fat.
- Use the same “broad categories” approach to buying meat. For example, ground meat can be used in place of many more specific cuts.
- Rather than focusing on the variety and quality of fat sources, you can reduce stress if you just aim for the easiest shelf-stable fats: olive oil and coconut oil. Do your best on quality, but don’t let it paralyze you.
- Do not worry about preservatives/additives in shelf-stable coconut milks or other canned foods that otherwise meet “clean” AIP requirements.
- Make and freeze as much bone broth as possible. (You might be able to get more in your freezer by freezing in ice cube trays & then dumping into plastic freezer bags that can be laid more flat.)
- Purchase or make fermented foods. The fermentation process helps these foods keep well for longer periods.
- Aim to slowly stock up on 2-3 weeks of pantry basics that you already know you will use. The key is to stock up on items that you or your family would usually eat, so that they don’t go to waste.
- Stock up on canned fish and seafood, like tuna, salmon, smoked oysters, sardines, and mackerel, all shelf-stable nutrient-dense sources of protein.
- Buy meat in bulk from your local farmer. Farms run no matter what and they would love to have you as a new and loyal customer. Find a farmer near you on eatwild.com.
- Make pate and freeze into individual servings. It will last longer this way and is packed with all the nutrients our immune systems need to thrive.
Finally, all of us should be ready to get super adjustable on our meal planning. If that feels like a level of creativity that you just can’t muster right now, I have two suggestions:
- Try using this “meal matrix”from our friend, Diana Rodgers from her upcoming book and film, Sacred Cow.
- Our pals at Real Plans recently rolled out a feature called “My Pantry” that lets you look for AIP recipes based on what you have on hand. Super helpful!
Adaptability Over Perfectionism
AIP perfectionism is crippling in the best of circumstances. During a pandemic, it could literally be “the last straw.” Instead, one of the top skills to cultivate right now is adaptability. Hopefully these tips help you figure out just the right things to modify and right ways to be flexible. I actually think that every person with an autoimmune disease is in many ways already very adaptable and capable of handling not only this pandemic, but also whatever else may be coming. Every difficult moment with autoimmune disease has already prepared you. Learning how to best support your immune system functioning and improve your baseline health, even during a pandemic, is just another chance to use those skills.