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While it may seem that the Autoimmune Protocol is merely an elimination diet, there is more to it than simply avoiding certain foods. In fact, I believe that ignoring the nutrient-density piece is one of the largest obstacles to success when people adopt AIP. While there is a lot of focus on eliminating grains, beans, dairy, nuts, seeds, and nightshades out of the diet, equally as important is adding in to the diet nutrient-dense foods—these are foods that have a particularly high content of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and necessary to heal one’s body from a lifetime of eating depleting and empty foods.
Like I just pointed out, one of the biggest reasons a person may not experience success on the Autoimmune Protocol is because they have ignored this concept of nutrient density. If you have been plugging away on your elimination diet by eating a lot of chicken breast, broccoli, and coconut oil, I’m here to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and include some foods that will nourish and heal instead of just get you to the next meal.
Now, how do you implement nutrient-density into your routine? Making sure to include foods like organ meats like liver and kidney, fatty fish and shellfish, seaweed, fermented foods and tons of colorful fruits and vegetables will get you started on your way. If you looked at that list and thought “I don’t eat those foods very often,” I’m here to tell you that you have some work to do!
Here is a list of some of the nutrients I think it is important to prioritize on the Autoimmune Protocol. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I have highlighted the nutrients I have found are harder to get without specifically trying and are particularly important for healing from autoimmunity.
Vitamin A—Liver and fish liver oil (for retinol, which is pre-formed vitamin A and the most bioavailable), yellow-orange vegetables (for beta-carotene, which is a vitamin A precursor). It is important not to rely on beta-carotene for your only source of vitamin A, since most people have poor conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A in the liver as discussed in this article.
Vitamin D—Liver and fish liver oil, fatty fish, and responsible sunlight exposure (here is a great video about responsible sun exposure).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids—fatty fish and fish liver oil (best source), organ meats, and pastured meats
B Vitamins—meat and seafood (especially shellfish and organ meats), colorful vegetables, seaweed
Iron—organ meats, shellfish, and red meat like beef or lamb
Zinc—shellfish, organ meats, muscle meats, green leafy vegetables (to a lesser extent)
Selenium—fish and shellfish (best source), organ meats, muscle meats
Iodine—Fish, shellfish, seaweed (be cautious if you have Hashimoto’s)
Probiotics—fermented vegetables, kombucha, water kefir
One thing to note is that food quality has a large impact on nutrient density, especially regarding the balance of Omega 3 and 6 fats in muscle and organ meats. Animals fed corn and soy have more Omega 6 fats, which can tip the balance to be pro-inflammatory. On the other hand, grass-fed meat has a much better ratio of Omega-3 and 6 fats, which is why it is recommended. If you can’t afford or get your hands on grass-fed meat, it may be necessary to prioritize seafood so that your Omega 3/6 ratio is more in balance.
So your next question may be “how much of these foods should I eat?” Sarah Ballantyne recommends in her book, The Paleo Approach that we eat offal 4-5 times a week, seafood at least 3 times a week, and that we fill the rest of our protein requirements with mostly grass-fed red meat, with occasional poultry. Add in some probiotic foods daily, bone broth used in recipes, as well as a sprinkling of seaweed in your meals here and there, and you will easily be hitting the nutrient density piece on the mark.
How do I incorporate nutrient density into my routine? I’ll be honest, I find eating offal 4-5 times a week is difficult. I make a batch of Bacon Beef Liver Pate once every couple of weeks, freeze half of it, and eat 3-4 servings of it throughout the week. Every few weeks I make a meal with heart, kidney, or other offal in it, although I will admit that I don’t particularly look forward to it, I know it is good for my health. I love fish and live in an area where it is plentiful, so I eat salmon 4-5 times a week. I use bone broth daily when cooking soups/stews in the fall/winter, and drink it straight in the summer when I am eating more salads. I always include a scoop of fermented vegetables with my breakfast, and have a glass of kombucha almost every day.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again—I noticed a big difference in my health when I started to take the nutrient density piece more seriously. I also notice when I am traveling and don’t have access to organ meats, bone broth, or my fermented veggies for a week or two, I don’t feel as great. If you have been doing the Autoimmune Protocol for some time and feel it is time to take it to the next level, I hope this article has given you the courage to step outside your comfort zone and go for those nutrients, even if it means eating more foods you are not as drawn to!
I usually make your “chillies” with finely chopped organ meats instead of ground meat. For me it’s an easy way of eating more offal 🙂
Wonderful! I often suggest to people to add some organ meat to their meals with ground meat, its hardly noticeable and really adds some nutrient-density!
Great idea! I started adding liver to my breakfast patties. But this is nice for variety!
I understand the need for nutrient density. I have not had beef for 25 years (because of mad cow disease), and I’m very wary to start again. Is there a good substitute? Also my husband reacts poorly to lamb; is there a sub for that? I would love a substitute sheet for the meats and fish in particular. For instance, you use shrimp in some of your recipes, and I haven’t found any sourcing of shrimp that can say the shrimp isn’t full of toxins from our polluted oceans. I love your Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook, and I just got Nutrient-Dense Kitchen but haven’t been able to look at it yet. (I’m waiting for it to outgas; the print is very stinky.) Thank you!
Hi Kim! Have you tried bison? Elk? Venison? Those might do for the nutrients supplied by red meat. If you are wary of shrimp, you can easily get those nutrients from fish like sardines. Hope it helps!
Thanks for the reminder about nutrient density. I first started using this concept in choosing foods when I followed the Furhman diet a several years ago; he is especially emphatic about it, but it is a primarily vegan diet. A year ago I started on the Paleo diet, then AIP last spring. I am also resistant to organ meats, so am always on the lookout for grass fed offal and good recipes.
I find traveling very difficult, after getting back from a week long trip to Yellowstone NP. Trying to figure out what to eat takes a lot of time and questioning of the waiter. Fortunately the national parks are sensitive to GF, but not necessarily dairy or grain free. I need to be much better organized on our next trip and pack more of the foods I eat.:-)
Thanks for sharing your experience! I hope you had a nice time in the wilderness of Yellowstone–although its hard to eat, I find being in the wilderness so restorative. Wishing you luck on your journey!
Great post to remind all of us of the importance of the nutrient quality. I just bough your book and expect to have it soon. I personally don’t know yet where to start but two months ago my doctor told me that i was tested positive for thyroid antibodies, so i got rid of gluten and started AIP. The hardest part for me is to keep the weight up. I lost a lot of weight and I struggle to keep it up. I do eat lots of fruits and veggies and meets, but still loose weight.
Are these ok on the AIP: plantain, yuca, taro, Rutabaga, sweet potatos, yums ?
After i introduced above in one week i was able to gain some weight.
Will I be ever able to eat pizza or rice or it is gave over for me as my immune system attacks myself?
I dont have symptoms yet but only presence of antibodies.
All of those foods you listed above are fine on AIP as long as you tolerate them. Starchy carbs are great for keeping weight on, and I recommend eating them with lots of fat to get calories. I can’t tell you about the pizza or rice… some of us have been able to reintroduce white rice, but gluten is usually a forever avoid for us autoimmune folks. Hope it helps!
Thanks for this! Increasing my nutrient intake is my focus at the moment, and this post is really encouraging 🙂
Wishing you luck Virgina!
thank you for this! i am proud to say my dr shared my inflammation is down and was wondering how it happened, shared i have been doing the AIP diet :). I have been wanting to start adding in organ meat but wanted to ask about the seaweed. When you say sprinkle seaweed, where do you get it from? I am assuming it is not those snack packs peeps eat of seaweed. could you share with me the brand you use/like? Thanks!
I personally don’t eat seaweed because I have Hashimoto’s and I don’t want to get too much iodine (I still get some from fish, but seaweed is too high in it for me). I know they sell some in salt shakers to sprinkle on food, maybe you could look on Amazon or at your local natural grocery? Hope it helps!
Dr. Wahl talks about where to get seaweed in the Wahl Protocol. Basically she says to stick with seaweed from Canada or Maine. I bought two types of Sea Seasonings from a company Maine Coast. You can find it in a natural grocery store.
Thanks for sharing Lynn! I have also used Maine Coast before.
Thank you so much for this reminder! After years of being primal (including dairy) I was finally diagnosed with celiac and immediately started AIP. The stress of everything I couldn’t eat was too much for me and after 30 days I completely botched my re introductions. Focusing on nutrient dense foods instead of all the things I shouldn’t have has made it manageable and I was finally able to reintroduce a few things that make life much easier. Your blog and book have been an amazing resource through the whole process, thank you for what you do!
Bev–sorry to hear its been difficult for you, I wish you more ease as time passes!
Hi Mickey and Angie,
I’ve been doing the autoimmune protocol since January 1, although been paleo since June but just wasn’t seeing enough healing with my eczema, so I finally jumped in. Right away my eczema got better and now almost two weeks later is virtually gone. The reason why I’m writing, though, is I have a question: after starting the protocol I had a few days where I lacked energy and was in a small funk. I searched your website and found those symptoms to be common, but also found that I should ensure I was getting enough carbs. So I have been tracking my food intake on fitday, and although I’m hitting my macro goals roughly ( getting a little over 100 grams of carbs, 90 grams of fat, and 80 grams of protein) I noticed that my calorie intake is hovering around 1100-1300. I’m 5’6 and 157 lbs and I’m worried that, that’s not enough. What are your thoughts? Do calories matter when you’re eating on this protocol? I feel like I’m hitting most of the nutrient density foods except for fatty fish–I hate it, but I take fish oil. And I’m only eating about 2 servings of offal per week. But other than that I am eating a wide variety of the recommendations. My energy has since recovered and I feel great btw.
One other question: I remember reading that you too struggled with hair thinning. I was wondering if you noticed that your hair has thickened back up and how long did it take to see those results once starting the protocol? I ask because I too suffer from this problem and I am working with a functional medical practioner and my thyroid, iron, hormones and cortisol are all good–almost optimal–micronutrient deficiencies have been corrected, yet my stool test showed I had borderline leaky gut. Thus, I feel like this could be the reason my hair has thinned and isn’t filling in as fast as it’s falling out.
I’m not one for counting calories or making calorie recommendations, but 1100-1300 calories sounds far to low. That could certainly be a reason why you have been experiencing some fatigue. I definitely recommend trying to get some more food in on the protocol.
I did have hair thinning related to my Hashimoto’s. Once I got my thyroid levels optimized as well as sufficient in a few nutrients–iron, and D, most notably–I noticed my hair coming back in patches. Other issues can cause hairloss that aren’t related to autoimmunity–hormonal balance, and stress, for instance. You may need to investigate these issues to see if that could be a reason why your hair isn’t coming back.
Wishing you luck!
[…] Get tested for vitamin/mineral deficiencies and correct them, ideally through nutrient-dense food choices. […]
Can you buy acceptable fermented vegetables or are they all to processed to be helpful? If so, are there brands that you recommend? I have a fear of poisoning my family with improperly prepared fermented veggies.
Yes, you can purchase fermented vegetables, but you need to be sure that they are raw and not heated to ensure that they still have a high probiotic content. Fermented foods are actually quite safe–since the environment is salty and acidic there is no chance of something like botulism, which can happen with canning. Improperly fermented veggies will be pretty obvious from sight and smell.
I am having a really hard time with organ meats. I just cannot stomach them. Any suggestions? I normally never bar a problem with food tastes.
*have a problem
To get used to liver, try this: take some frozen liver and grate with a box grater, then store in a ziploc bag in the freezer. Any time you have a recipe that calls for ground meat, use a tablespoon or two of the grated liver. Gradually increase to tolerance. Hope it helps!
I love this idea- focusing on what TO eat, not on what not to eat. My dilemma- I really do not like seafood. So that is OUT. I will try to focus on organ meats (incorporating into recipes) and more vegetables. Any suggestions?
Thanks! See you in Seattle Feb 8th.
This is a common issue–my suggestion would be to try a real food supplement like fermented cod liver oil to get some omega-3s and the fat soluble nutrients you would be lacking by avoiding seafood. Green Pastures makes a good product!
I have both RA and Hashimoto’s, and have been doing the Whole30 plan for about three months now. My joint pain is completely gone and I was able to stop my RA meds completely. My thyroid is healing as well, and I’m beginning a plan to decrease my thyroid meds, as my levels are now too high (such a good problem to have!). I haven’t done AIP yet, but I’ve been contemplating it. It just seems so hard, as it’s been difficult enough to stick to no grains, dairy, legumes, sugar. In addition, my doctor just had me tested for food sensitivities (igG) and it came back with 27 different foods, which made me want to cry. Would you recommend that I do AIP + remove all foods that indicated sensitivities (there wasn’t much crossover), or would just removing the additional foods I’m sensitive to be enough? It’s hard, because I feel like I’m already spending so much mental energy trying to figure out what to eat (and then preparing it, freezing it, etc.). It seems so overwhelming.
First off–congrats on your progress! Wow. I’m unsure why you want to move towards a more restricted diet, considering your progress. I haven’t found food sensitivity testing to be particularly helpful, often it is confusing and inaccurate. You definitely don’t want to get to a place where you are too restricted to stick to anything. I’d either keep doing what you are doing, or experimenting with some gentle eliminations depending on your ongoing goals.
Thanks! I have a question for those of us with a histamine intolerance.
I can’t do Kombucha, probiotics and other high histamine things like fermented veggies and fermented cod liver oil. Any thoughts on how to heal and overcome that with the histamine intolerance in the way?
Appreciate your help!
Have you been tested or treated for SIBO as an underlying cause for your histamine intolerance? This is a very common presentation. Hope it helps!
[…] The Argument for Nutrient Density – Autoimmune Paleo […]
[…] you focusing on nutrient-density? Mickey wrote a great article recently listing the most important nutrients for autoimmune healing, and the foods that contain those nutrients. When you first start the AIP, it’s natural to […]
[…] a recent article about nutrient density, Mickey emphasized the importance of adding nutrient-dense foods in your healing diet. These […]
[…] a recent article about nutrient density, Mickey Trescott emphasized the importance of adding nutrient-dense foods in your healing diet. […]
[…] of the strongest arguments for the Autoimmune Protocol is that it is an incredibly nutrient-dense diet (the most nutrient dense diet I’ve ever come across, in fact, especially when a person is […]
[…] AIP has 3 pillars of healing: the foods we remove from our diet which are inflammation triggers, the foods we add to our diet that nourish and heal, and the lifestyle changes we make that balance our hormones and […]
Thank you for this article i need to incorporate it in my diet It is hard living in a small town to find grass fed meats is organic meat the same ? Also did you ever get alot of allergies to foods seems like everything I eat is giving me allergies to the point my regular doctor put me on claritin but i rather not take it. Thank you
I understand it can be hard to find high quality meat everywhere, actually sometimes in rural places it is better to shop directly with your farmer to get the best quality and savings. Use the site eatwild.com to find a farm near you. If you are having reactions to foods it is clear they may be allergies or sensitivities, best to avoid anything that causes those symptoms. Hope it helps!
Thanks for this reminder! Have to up seafood and organ meats. Also seaweed. Thought I was doing great, but forgot about this!
[…] affordable meat products you can buy, even organic and grass-fed. Not to mention they are the most nutrient-dense, healing foods you can include in your […]
Thoughts on taking cod liver oil supplement? That would sort out the first three common deficiencies. This is the one that I plan on taking: https://www.seven-seas.com/en_GB/simple-goodness/seven-seas-pure-cod-liver-oil-one-a-day-capsules.html
Dear Mickey and Angie:
I’ve just published my blog about health and nutrition in Spanish: http://www.episalud.com. My first blog post will be about AIP. I would love to mention your work and a link to your website. Would it be possible?
Thanks a lot in advance. Sorry to ask this question here but I couldn’t find an e-mail adress in your Website.
Best regards, Alice.
Hi Alice! We would love for you to link to us, we just ask that you don’t use our writing or photography without permission. Really happy to have a Spanish resource for the autoimmune protocol!
What about liver pills? Would that be acceptable?
Of course if that is the only way you can get liver in, it is better than nothing. I find them a very costly replacement, and you are likely to not be able to get a good quantity of liver taking it in capsule form versus eating it.
[…] Importancia de la densidad nutricional: aquí, aquí y aquí. […]
[…] Get tested for vitamin/mineral deficiencies and correct them, ideally through nutrient-dense food choices. […]
[…] Let’s start by defining what nutrient density is. For this, we’ll consult sources other than my go-to Dr. Sarah Ballantyne. According to dictionary.com, nutrient density is an adjective meaning “relatively rich in nutrients for the number of calories contained.” The USDA uses nutrient density as a synonym for nutrition. Want a quick primer on nutrient density? Check out Mickey Trescott’s argument for it here. […]
[…] Lamb is what we call a nutrient dense food. Read more about the importance of nutrient dense foods on the Autoimmune Wellness blog here. […]
Would taking an organ supplement like this one: https://www.amazon.com/Ancestral-Supplements-Grass-Organs-Desiccated/dp/B06XP7Z1KN
be close to as good as eating the actual organs?
Hi Jeff! Yes, supplements can be an option for those who don’t want to eat organ meats, but unfortunately desiccated liver pills are pretty cost-prohibitive when compared to the same quantities of fresh organ meats.
[…] Want a quick primer on nutrient density? Check out Mickey Trescott’s argument for it here. […]
I was just diagnosed with Gout and previously IBS. I did all the blood work and stool test with my mew functional medicine Dr and found clear leaky gut and a parasite. Havent done dairy for years, have done the Daniel fast with much success new to AIP but my question is how do I do AIP if I have gout? Organ meats, red meats, and shellfish are huge no no. Really stuck here. Do I do AIP and eat as direct and my git will heal and this not cause the inflammation from those mentioned foods so I shouldnt worry? Really need advice.
Hi Enrique! I recommend if you are trying to layer some other restrictions with AIP (such as removing certain foods that trigger gout), you should work with a coach who can help make personalized recommendations. Here is a list of folks we’ve trained -> http://aipcertified.com. Good luck!
What about those who battle high cholesterol? Organ meats?
Hi Gayla! You might find this article about the functional medicine approach to high cholesterol interesting: https://chriskresser.com/functional-medicine-approach-to-high-cholesterol/