Angela Huang had always had food sensitivities.
She had tried different diets with varying results. By the time she moved to Colorado in 2011, she believed she had healed sufficiently to reintroduce certain foods into her diet. That was necessary, because she had enrolled in a culinary program that taught classic French techniques and food, which included gluten and dairy.
“I was working as a pastry chef, and I began to have skin issues,” says Huang, who lives in Boulder. “It started with a rash on my hand, moved up my arm and to the rest of my body.”
The problem got better for awhile, but then worsened, even though she had quit eating what seemed to be the foods that caused problems.
“I got full-body hives,” Huang says. “It was going on for months. It looked like open wound burns on my arms. I had to go to the emergency room. It had spread to my face and was blocking my vision.”
The emergency room staff recommended a dermatologist, who Huang says wanted to put her on steroids to calm the reaction she was having.
“That was not getting to the root of anything,” she says. “My own journey had me feeling like I needed to do something to calm the inflammation in my body. I was hypersensitive. At one point, my body was probably allergic to everything. My body was in a super-inflamed state.”
Huang took off work, did some reading and thinking and decided to try the Autoimmune Protocol diet, sometimes nicknamed Paleo-plus. The AIP diet, popularized by Sarah Ballantyne, emphasizes nutrient-dense organ meats, vegetables and fats such as coconut oil, but it adds several additional restrictions on foods, including nightshades and nuts. And like the Paleo diet, no grains, legumes or potatoes are allowed.
The diet is not without controversy.
“There is absolutely zero research this kind of diet is effective for anything, not to mention autoimmune disease,” says Bonnie Jortberg, an assistant professor in the department of Family Medicine at University of Colorado School of Medicine. Jortberg, a registered dietitian who holds a PhD, teaches medical students about nutrition.
One of Jortberg’s big objections to the diet, in addition to the lack of research showing its efficacy, is that it eliminates many nutritious foods and adds a lot of animal fat into a person’s diet.
And, she adds: “It’s not easy to follow on a daily basis.”
That can be problematic, Jortberg says, when people who must restrict their diets because of a medically diagnosed condition such as Celiac disease, try the diet. She worries that having such a large number of restrictions makes people more like to “cheat,” perhaps endangering their health by eating foods proven to be harmful to them.
Huang admits that adhering to the AIP diet is difficult. She has started a Meetup group in Boulder where people following the diet can support each other.
“It’s to share the hardship of being on such an isolating diet,” Huang says.
The group holds potlucks, and Huang, using her chef’s training, also holds events — such as tastings of organ meats — that charge a fee.
Huang copes with the diet by cooking in large quantities and freezing foods, which makes it more convenient to eat at home.
“I like to do batch cooking. It saves time,” she says.
Huang says it can be difficult to eat out. Even though it’s possible to order foods that are allowed on the diet, restaurants often use ingredients such as canola oil, which are considered inflammatory, according to the protocol.
She says she has found three restaurants in Boulder — all gluten-free — that can accommodate the AIP diet: Shine, Fresh Thymes Eatery and Blooming Beets. The latter offers a special AIP-friendly menu.
Iva Paleckova, owner of Blooming Beets, says the restaurant started offering the special menu after several people asked for food that would conform to the AIP Protocol.
“I think it really helps some people,” she says of the special menu. Currently, Paleckova says only about 1 in 20 customers use the AIP menu. “We’ve got a lot of Paleo folks. AIP is still a true minority.”
Paleckova plans to open a restaurant in the Baker area of Denver in the spring, where she will serve a Paleo-friendly, gluten-free menu, as Blooming Beets does. She has not yet decided whether she will offer the AIP items on the Denver menu, but patrons will be able to customize their meals to fit AIP.
When it comes to eating out, those following the AIP often start with Paleo-friendly restaurants that source animals raised without antibiotics and hormones, like Colt and Gray and Old Major. Other Paleo hotspots in Denver, like mmm…Coffee on Santa Fe might find that while the AIP diet doesn’t allow coffee or many of the shop’s treats that contain nuts or seeds, there are still AIP options, like salads with lemon juice and broiled salmon. But because the AIP precludes olive oil and other seed oil, it would be necessary to quiz the server about how the protein is cooked, even at Paleo-friendly restaurants. Those particularly sensitive to gluten and nuts would also need to ask about the possibility of cross-contamination.
For those interested in AIP, but not sure they can commit to such a strict diet, Boulder registered dietitian Esther Cohen offers a 21-day cleanse program that begins with eliminating common food allergens such as wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts and eggs. The cleanse begins with “clean” foods including meats, vegetables and sometimes grains such as quinoa. It also eliminates alcohol, sugar and caffeine, and includes a one-day fast.
“One reason I don’t go so extreme is that it adds stress to the diet,” Cohen says, adding that stress has a negative effect on the immune system.
Cohen’s cleanse can also act as an elimination diet, in that food items can be added back one at a time to see if they cause a problem. She adds that it’s also important to heal a person’s gut by adding beneficial bacteria and eating healthful fats.
Huang says her health is much improved, though she still has flare-ups. She has slowly begun to add back nutrient-dense items, such as egg yolks, to her diet.
Jortberg of the University of Colorado School of Medicine says that while she worries about severely restrictive diets not backed by research as a long-term eating strategy, trying them for a short period of time is probably OK for many people.
“We are all experiments of one,” she says.
But, she adds: “Try it with a healthy skepticism.”
What is the AIP diet?
The Autoimmune Protocol diet was popularized by Sarah Ballantyne, thepaleomom.com, who has written books and cookbooks on the Paleo diet. She holds a Ph.D. in medical biophysics from the University of Western Ontario. In her books and on her website, she recounts her personal experience with Hashimoto thyroiditis, weight issues, asthma and skin conditions, all of which she says were improved by the Paleo diet, which she adopted in 2011.
She saw further improvements when she adopted the AIP diet. It is much like the Paleo diet, which generally eliminates grains, legumes, potatoes, sugar and dairy, with the exception of grass-fed butter. It encourages eating organ meats, fish and seafood, a wide variety of vegetables, fruits (limiting the amount of fructose), connective tissue in food items such as bone broth and probiotic foods such as vegetable ferments.
However, the AIP diet excludes vegetables believed to “excite” the immune system — that includes nightshades such as tomatoes and peppers (also, spices such as paprika). In addition, nuts and seeds, (including spices in seed form, cocoa, coffee and grain-like seeds such as quinoa or millet) are eliminated, as are eggs. Stevia is also forbidden.
Though some adherents swear by the diet, Bonnie Jortberg at University of Colorado School of Medicine notes that there is “zero” medical research supporting the idea that the diet is effective.
For information about the Boulder Meetup group, go to meetup.com/Boulder-Autoimmune-Paleo-Support-Group/