Chronic illness and autoimmune disease can make living life feel like an uphill battle. When you’re trying to follow the autoimmune protocol (AIP), it can feel like you’re up against even more of a challenge. This is especially true in a culture that is becoming increasingly “anti-diet” which can leave some in the autoimmune community feeling judged or shamed for following healing dietary approaches, like AIP.
A simple way for those in the autoimmune community to navigate anti-diet culture while following AIP is by embracing the principles of Health at Every Size® (HAES®). In this article, we’ll explore how HAES and AIP can work together to help make your autoimmune journey a little bit easier.
What is Health at Every Size® (HAES®) and How Can It Help People Living with Autoimmune Diseases?
If you’ve ever been told to lose weight to improve your autoimmune condition, you’re not alone. Approximately 4.5 percent of the world’s population lives with an autoimmune disease.  Every day millions of people are inundated with the message that they need to change their bodies in order to improve their health. Based on the research this couldn’t be further from the truth.
What we know from the literature is that behavior change plays a larger role than weight loss in health improvement.  This will likely come as no surprise for those following (or are interested in following) AIP. As a science-based elimination and reintroduction diet and lifestyle protocol, AIP is aimed at removing food-driven sources of inflammation while including foods that will restore nutrient density.  While the dietary component of AIP is essential, we cannot ignore the lifestyle component of AIP. Whether it’s practicing good sleep hygiene or enhancing your personal connections, the behaviors we engage in can have a huge impact on our healing journey.
Now you might be wondering if behavior change has been shown to play a larger role in our health than weight, why is there so much of a focus on weight loss? Although some links exist between weight and health, there is little evidence to suggest that weight loss alone leads to lasting health benefits.  What research has found is that the connection between weight and health is far more complex. What we do know for certain is that engaging in healthy behaviors can lead to positive health outcomes despite the absence of weight loss. 
If you’re wondering what’s the alternative to focusing on weight, this is where HAES comes in. HAES is a weight-inclusive movement that focuses on promoting size acceptance, ending weight discrimination, and lessening the cultural obsession with thinness.  Through the HAES principles of weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, eating for well-being, and life-enhancing movement those of us living with an autoimmune disease can feel encouraged to focus less on our weight and more on our wellbeing.
Further, HAES serves as a counter to “diet culture” which refers to a set of beliefs that equates thinness with health, success, and beauty in society.  For many of us, diet culture is the lens through which we view health. This can be an extremely harmful lens for those of us in the autoimmune community as thinness is not a prerequisite for better health, success, or beauty.
In comparison, “anti-diet culture” has emerged as a way to challenge the myth that weight equals health and takes a specific issue with restrictive diets.  At first glance, this is where AIP and HAES might seem to butt heads. It’s hard enough to follow AIP when everyone around you is seemingly eating whatever they want. When you’re being told that AIP is a “restrictive diet” it can leave you feeling judged for doing something intended to improve your health.
If you’ve found it daunting to navigate anti-diet culture while following AIP, here are five ways HAES and AIP can work together to help you along your autoimmune journey.
How HAES and AIP Can Work Together on Your Autoimmune Journey
#1. Understand the Reasoning Behind the Two Phases of AIP
There are two phases when following AIP – the first where foods, like grains and dairy, will be removed from your diet; this is called the “elimination” phase. Within the elimination, phase is two stages – elimination and maintenance. This is intended to restore nutrient density by including foods, such as healthy fats, bone broth, and organ meats. The second phase consists of reintroductions after some time has passed (usually between 30-90 days) so that any inflammation driven by the foods you removed during the elimination phase can subside before reintroducing them.
Going through these two phases, you’ll be able to develop a more flexible and individualized approach to eating. By applying the principle of eating for well-being, you’ll be able to develop a greater understanding of the benefits of consuming foods based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure. Something to keep in mind is that if you’re only focusing on your nutritional needs and ignoring pleasure you might find that you struggle to maintain compliance during the elimination phase. At the same time, if you don’t prioritize eating nutrient-dense foods you might find it difficult to control your hunger and reach satiety during the reintroduction phase. Thus, understanding the reason behind the two phases of AIP provides you with the foundation that you need to eat in a way that supports your overall health and wellbeing.
#2. Know the Benefits of Reintroducing Foods One at a Time
Once you’ve gone through the elimination phase of AIP, it’s time to focus on the reintroduction phase. During this phase, you’ll reintroduce foods one at a time so that you can test your response. Even though it might be tempting to reintroduce your favorite foods first, it’s generally recommended to start with the most nutrient-dense foods. The reason is the foods that are most nutrient-dense are least likely to cause a reaction versus the foods that are least nutrient-dense are more likely to cause a reaction. Hence, taking a slow-and-steady approach with reintroductions will allow you to reintroduce your favorite foods while supporting your autoimmune health.
For this reason, it’s imperative not to stay in the elimination phase longer than you need to. Given that the principle of health enhancement is aimed at supporting personal practices that improve wellbeing going the reintroduction stage is vital for accomplishing that. Remember that the only reason certain foods are temporarily removed from your diet is that they are common to trigger an inflammatory response. However, there are many reasons for reintroducing some of these foods back into our diet. After all, some of the foods removed during the elimination phase are nutrient-dense foods that are beneficial to our diets, like eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Subsequently, knowing the benefits of reintroducing foods one at a time gives you the ability to discover the foods that support your autoimmune health and the ones that don’t.
#3. Remind Yourself That AIP Truly is a Lifestyle Change
When people are transitioning to AIP, they often focus on the dietary component. But it’s important not to forget about the other vital aspect of AIP – the lifestyle component. It’s not enough to make dietary changes if you ignore the impact that sleep, stress management, connection, and movement have on your health. For instance, when you’re not getting good quality sleep, it can increase the likelihood that you’ll experience impaired immunity, cognitive decline, or systemic inflammation.  Furthermore, if you’re not taking the time to connect with those you care about it might lead you to feel alone on your autoimmune journey. And, let’s not forget about the impact that ineffective stress management techniques can have on your health. Because of this concentrating on the lifestyle components of AIP is paramount.
Now there’s one more lifestyle component of AIP that we need to talk about – and that’s movement. Depending on where you are on your autoimmune journey, movement may be something that you find increasingly difficult. Nevertheless, it’s advantageous for those living with autoimmune diseases to stay physically active. As the principle of life-enhancing movement calls attention to, no matter our size, ability, or interest we all have the ability to engage in movement that we enjoy to the degree that we choose. Whether that is a morning yoga session or an afternoon swim, choosing low-impact movements you enjoy can be extremely restorative. As a result, reminding yourself that AIP is a lifestyle change ensures that the actions that you’re choosing to take are focused on what you can sustainable do long-term.
#4. Remember This Isn’t About Your Weight
Despite the fact that weight loss might be a goal for some on their autoimmune journey, weight loss is not the goal of AIP. This is important to remember so that you don’t set yourself up for disappointment if and when you don’t lose weight. Instead of focusing on losing weight, there are many other health benefits that you can experience by following AIP. For example, AIP can help boost beneficial gut bacteria, reduce inflammation, and decrease autoimmune symptoms. While it’s tempting to worry about what the scale says, it’s critical that you remember that AIP isn’t a diet—it’s a lifestyle change that can help improve your health. By following AIP, you might even find that you lose weight without even trying, but if not, that’s OK too.
What truly matters is that irrespective of your size if you’re following the guidelines of AIP you’re likely to see improvements in your symptoms and overall health. Just make sure to keep the principle of weight inclusivity in mind. When you learn to accept the diversity of your body you’ll likely find that you will feel less tied to the number on the scale. Further, you’ll gain a better respect for your body and understand that AIP is about improving your health, not reducing your weight.
#5. Recognize The Road to Better Health Requires Support
It should go without saying that having a supportive environment makes all the difference when you’re on your autoimmune journey. Though we each face our own unique challenges, as we are working to improve our health there is immense value in finding strength in numbers. Whether that support comes in the form of an online community or from your personal healthcare team, we cannot dismiss the importance of support on the road to better health.
Given that your healthcare team plays an important role in your autoimmune journey, many choose to combine AIP with conventional or functional medicine treatments. In light of the principle of respectful care, combining these approaches presents the opportunity to receive the support that you need to achieve your health goals. Whether it’s discussing AIP with your rheumatologist or HAES with your general practitioner, there is value in knowing that you can lean on your healthcare team for support. In doing so, you’ll build a healthcare team that understands your condition and takes the necessary steps to support you on your journey to better health.
Navigating anti-diet culture can feel daunting at first, but we hope that the article has shown you how AIP and HAES can effectively work together. With AIP you’re able to really focus on ensuring that you’re fueling your body with nutrient-dense foods and maintaining a lifestyle that restores you from the inside out. Couple that with HAES you’ll be encouraged to focus less on the number on the scale and more on engaging in personal practices that support your wellbeing. Now that you have everything you need to make HAES and AIP work together it’s time to move forward and build a better future for yourself.
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