Insight into Autoimmune Diet Protocols

April 13, 2017
By: Christina Stapke


Can diet really help cure or prevent autoimmune disease? Anecdotes about the Autoimmune Paleo (AIP) Diet and Wahls Protocol, claiming to do just that, breed warranted skepticism. Popularity amongst the generally healthy public concern many dietitians, as these autoimmune diet protocols restrict otherwise wholesome and nutrient-dense foods. However, for people struggling with autoimmune disorders, these protocols deserve a second glance.

What is Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease is a complex, multi-faceted process that the scientific community is still striving to fully understand. Today it is particularly relevant, with a large prevalence of several diseases and disorders such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, and many others. Theorized causes of autoimmunity range from chronic stress, to leaky gut, to vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency, among many others.

While there are several other autoimmune diet protocols that claim to mitigate autoimmune disease, the Wahls Protocol and the Autoimmune Paleo diet are discussed here.

The Wahls Protocol

This protocol was developed by Dr. Terry Wahls, a clinical professor at the University of Iowa, who was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. She combined her knowledge of functional medicine and paleo diet principles to develop the Wahls Protocol. After a year of following this diet, in addition to neuromuscular electrical stimulation, she halted and even began to reverse the progression of her MS.

Since then, she has fully developed an autoimmune diet protocol that aims to optimize mitochondrial function by ramping up intake of 31 micronutrients that support the mitochondria.

Foods emphasized:

  • 9 cups of vegetables per day
  • Berries
  • Grass-fed meats
  • Wild fish
  • Bone broth
  • Fermented foods
  • Organ meats
  • Seaweeds and sea vegetables

Food restricted:

  • Gluten
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Refined oils
  • Refined sugar
  • Processed foods
  • Food additives

*Note: these foods are just restricted on the basic level of the Wahls Diet. There are more strict Paleo versions of this.

Dr. Wahls has continued doing research on diet and lifestyle interventions targeting multiple sclerosis patients, testing her protocol, like the one found here.

Autoimmune Paleo Diet

The Autoimmune Paleo diet emphasizes all foods encouraged in the Wahls protocol, but additionally restricts the following foods:

  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Seeds (particularly cocoa, coffee, spices made from seeds)
  • Nightshades (eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers)
  • Alcohol

There has been a fair amount of anecdotal evidence supporting this type of regimen with remittance of autoimmune symptoms, such as seen with Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (also known as The Paleo Mom) and her followers.

The Take Away

The basis for restriction of the foods discussed in these autoimmune diet protocols are that they may cause an immune-mediated reaction in susceptible individuals.

Does this mean that everyone with an autoimmune condition should restrict all of these foods? Absolutely not. As always, diet must be personalized.

Before delving into any of these restrictive eating patterns, a standard elimination diet may be a better place to start (testing gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, corn, shellfish, etc). Because there is a lack of strong evidence supporting these autoimmune diet protocols, they may serve better as a reference for experimentation, rather than a rigid tool for those with autoimmune disorders or diseases.