Many folks come to the Autoimmune Protocol having spent time eating vegan or vegetarian diets, sometimes for long periods of time. While a transition to the elimination phase of AIP can be tricky no matter what your starting diet, it can be especially difficult if you are learning how to incorporate meat for the first time, or perhaps again after a long period of avoidance. If you fall into this category, this article is aimed at giving you some ideas and options to consider when trying to transition to eating animal products.
There are a lot of individual reasons why folks chose to avoid animal products (including moral or religious), and I want to make it clear that I’m not attempting to change anyone’s mind about eating meat here. While I have personally expanded my thinking on ethics, sustainability, and healthfulness of eating animal products, those are different topics that I hope to address at some point. This post is intended for those who have already decided to transition to incorporating animal products once again and are looking for tips and what they can expect in the process.
My history eating a vegan diet for 10 years
I ate a strict vegan diet for some of my teen years and most of my 20s (this means I ate no animal products, including foods like dairy, eggs, and honey). Initially I felt great eating this way, but nearly a decade later and having been newly diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases at 26 (Hashimoto’s and celiac), I found myself in an incredibly deep health crisis where 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 few treatment options.
This quick shift to ill health shocked me. I had believed that because I ate a whole-foods, plant-based diet consisting primarily of home-cooked meals, I would be spared from health issues. 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 turned out I was right.
Specifically, I started to include animal foods into my diet when I was unable to reverse nutrient deficiencies (most notably iron) with dietary changes and aggressive supplementation. I was at the bottom of my health crisis, and I had begun researching nutrient deficiencies and autoimmune disease. This was a very emotional and drawn-out period of my health crisis, and I was willing to do anything to feel even one shift in the right direction. I decided to do a slow transition to eating animal foods and implementing the elimination phase of AIP to see if I could make a dent in my worsening symptoms. It turned out that as difficult as incorporating animal foods was emotionally, physically, I had seen the first signs of healing and confirmed that these foods might be necessary for my body to enable the deep healing that my body so desperately needed.
How did I know a vegan diet was not working for me?
When I was in the depths of my health crisis, it became clear that nutrient deficiencies were causing my autoimmune disease symptoms to worsen. At first, I was not ready to change the way I ate (besides going gluten-free at my celiac diagnosis), so I began working with a nutritionist who was skilled at working with vegans and vegetarians to help dial in my diet and suggest supplementation that might help. At one point, I was taking over 30 different supplements a day, and despite that, many important markers would not improve (like iron), even when I tried expensive, more bio-available forms that included co-factors to assist with absorption.
At this point in my journey I was severely hypothyroid, I was fatigued all the time, my hair was falling out, and my skin was incredibly pale. It was really difficult for me or my healthcare providers to tell what issues I was experiencing were due to my autoimmune diseases (such as hypothyroidism caused by Hashimoto’s disease or absorption issues due to celiac disease) or what was caused by nutrient deficiencies (like iron, zinc, and b12).
This spurred a flurry of personal research into the nutrients the immune system needs for proper functioning, and I found a list of nutrients that my vegan diet provided very low levels of, like Iron, zinc, b12, vitamin A, and D. When I introduced meat, instead of feeling digestive distress like I expected, I actually felt warm and color returned to my cheeks (I’ll share the story in the next section). Making this discovery about nutrient deficiencies as well as my first experience eating meat led me to believe that incorporating animal foods in my diet was likely to be productive in fueling and accelerating my healing journey.
How long did it take to feel better?
About three months into my transition to eating animal products (by way of bone broth, eggs, and then white fish), I tried my first meal with red meat. It was a small bit of ground lamb that my husband Noah had cooked up with ample amounts of vegetables, in an effort to “hide” it. I ate this meal through tears, and went upstairs to my bed expecting to feel sick. What happened next surprised me–I felt warm, noticed color in my cheeks, and even took my temperature to verify I was indeed warmer than usual (the thermometer read 97 then, which was higher than my usual 95-96 degrees due to hypothyroidism). This experience encouraged me that my body was responding well to the nutrients in even that small amount of ground meat, and I decided to continue.
Even though I had a quick, positive reaction to eating red meat the first time, healing those nutrient deficiencies took many months, and for some specific symptoms, years. The first few weeks and months I noticed my energy shift, my skin was less pale, and my body temperature increased steadily. About 3-6 months in I noticed a huge amount of hair regrowth (so much I ended up with bangs!), my nails got much stronger, and my skin had completely changed for the better (no more keratosis pilaris, or “chicken skin,” and my dry skin was virtually gone). About 6 months in, my anemia was completely reversed, which was not surprising since I had developed a routine of eating beef liver regularly at that point. My cystic acne took about a year to resolve, and two years after re-incorporating meat, my peripheral neuropathy began to improve (a hallmark sign of long-term B12 deficiency).
It is important to remember that prior to this, I had been vegan for nearly 10 years, so those nutrient deficiencies were long-term and that likely was a big factor in how long it took for me to start feeling better. When gauging how long it might take for the symptoms of nutrient deficiencies to reverse, it is important to consider how long you’ve been eating a deficient diet as well as consider your body’s unique response to digestion and absorption (including any health conditions that might affect that, like celiac disease).
Tips for incorporating animal foods again
Incorporating animal foods back into your diet after a period of avoidance isn’t easy, especially if you have been eating that way for a long time. Remember to be gentle on yourself throughout this process! Having done it myself, I’ve outlined some tips below that might help you work through this process more easily:
#1 Go slowly. Start with baby steps and work up. If you are more open to eating fish, start with something like a mild white fish before working up to other varieties. Consider introducing veggie soups cooked with bone broth before including pieces of muscle meat. You might even find a transition to including high-quality eggs and dairy a good stepping-stone to including meat before a full AIP elimination. Personally, I started eating eggs first and then progressed to white fish. It took about 2 months before I was emotionally ready to eat muscle meat.
#2 Ask for cooking help and “hide” the meat in veggies! One of the biggest barriers for me personally in eating meat again was not wanting to cook or smell it. My husband Noah was a big supporter in offering to cook meals for me while I was not home, and hide them in large portions of vegetables. Sometimes this is easier to achieve in soups or meals that consist of ground meat with veggies!
#3 Consider digestive support. A lot of vegans and vegetarians (especially long-term adherents) are deficient in key nutrients necessary for the digestion of protein. Working with a practitioner to supplement these nutrients or offer other support (like enzymes, HCL, or probiotics) can help make those new foods more digestible and absorbable for a body that may have altered digestive function due to a lack of nutrients. A lot of animal foods either provide these nutrients or stimulate the body’s own production of digestive elements, so it is likely that increased animal food consumption will help shore up the body’s natural ability to digest them long-term.
#4 Consider modifying the elimination phase if you are working towards AIP. If your goal is a full elimination phase of the Autoimmune Protocol, it may be more important to introduce animal foods first than wade into an elimination phase that is lacking some key nutrients. For me, this looked like introducing eggs, which are usually eliminated in the early phase of AIP, while I adjusted to eating more animal foods (like seafood and eventually red meat). It wasn’t until I had those foods back in my diet a few months later that I was able to eliminate eggs. Don’t be afraid if your progression to an elimination phase looks like including some foods that might eventually be off-limits (like eggs or dairy) if that is your best path from A to B.
#5 Consider an approach with seafood and fowl if you are opposed to red meat. Red meat (especially organs!) are one of the most nutrient-dense and healing foods included in the elimination phase, but they are also the most common animal foods people don’t want to eat. You don’t need to eat red meat to safely implement the elimination phase, but if you are going to avoid it, you definitely need to make sure you are getting enough iron and other minerals (like zinc!) from protein options like fish and fowl.
Why you should NEVER implement AIP as a vegan or vegetarian!
The elimination phase of AIP removes grains, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds, and eggs, which still leaves room for you to get all of the nutrients they need (and then some!) from plant, animal, and seafood sources. This same elimination phase, implemented to also remove all animal and seafood, 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 (this listing of AIP Certified Coaches might bring up some practitioners who work locally or virtually that can help you out here!).
The common ground between AIP & vegan or vegetarian diets and eating meat “medicinally”
The Autoimmune Protocol and vegan or vegetarian diets actually have a lot in common, most notably the common foundation of all of these ways of eating is a focus on plant foods. I’ve written about this before, in my article AIP is a Plant-Based Protocol, and you can read more of my thoughts on this topic in that article.
Personally, I believe animal products (especially specific ones like organ meats and cold-water, fatty fish) are so nutrient-dense that they are almost medicinal, especially for those with autoimmune disease. By seeking out the highest-quality, nutrient-dense meat and seafood options, you can actually lower the total amount of meat or seafood you need to consume to meet your body’s needs. I like to use this “medicinal” approach to thinking about the impact of my meat and seafood consumption on both the animals, the planet, and my wallet <(considering these items are often the most expensive in the food budget – see my article Accessible AIP for more info here!).
For those of you looking to transition to eating animal foods, I hope you’ve learned some tips on how to do so more easily, or what to expect in terms of healing timelines after reading this article!
For those of you who came to AIP from a vegan or vegetarian background, what changes did you notice, and how long did it take for you to experience results? I’d love to know in the comments!