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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!