An autoimmune condition is when the body mistakenly attacks its own tissues. This is caused when the body can't recognize its own cells from a pathogen or when it cannot regulate the severity of the response against tissues. There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases and they can affect almost any area of the body.
Research has shown that there has been a recent increase in the number of people suffering from autoimmune diseases and a correlating increase in the amount of processed food we eat. For this reason, people are turning to diet to prevent or reverse the effects of autoimmune diseases. But are the two connected? Has it been proven by research?
Can diet really reverse the effects of a disease that causes the body to attack itself?
How does diet tie in with autoimmune diseases?
The link between diet and autoimmune conditions can be seen through the issue of inflammation. Research has suggested that eating anti-inflammatory foods can help to reduce some of the symptoms of autoimmune disease and minimize underlying inflammation. When we eat inflammatory foods, we tend to fill our bodies with chemicals and ingredients that are problematic to the gut as they’re hard to digest.
Many autoimmune diseases are triggered by the dysfunction of “tight junctions” in the intestine. These junctions act as sealants between the cells that protect the lining of the gastrointestinal tract so food can pass through. When functioning normally, these tight junctions help to protect the immune system from exposure to foreign bodies and bacteria.
However, if these tight junctions are damaged, the body experiences what we call a “leaky gut.” Here, toxins get into the bloodstream which can initiate the development of an autoimmune disease.
What foods should I avoid if I’m concerned about autoimmune diseases?
In general, for overall health, it’s a good idea to limit your intake of alcohol, food additives, processed foods, and refined sugar. There are also some other types of foods it's best to avoid, which we’ll cover below.
When we think of processed food, we may imagine microwave meals, chips, candy, and cake, but it’s not just the overtly unhealthy stuff that’s been processed. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) described processed food as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”
If you have an autoimmune condition, dairy can make things worse due to a predisposition to sensitivities. The paleo autoimmune protocol is based on the idea that dairy products are connected to the development of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
Removing eggs from a diet can also decrease one’s symptoms of IBD as eggs are a common sensitivity for people who have a leaky gut. For someone with an autoimmune disease, eggs can cause issues that wouldn’t happen to a healthy person. Eggs allow proteins like lysozyme to cross the gut barrier where they don’t belong, causing antibodies to fight against the foreign protein and the existing protein in the body as if it’s also unwanted.
The negative effects of a high-sugar diet are widely known, and many people with autoimmune diseases avoid sugar, too. The “Western diet,” namely one with lots of fat, sugar, and highly processed foods, is a suspected risk factor for developing or worsening autoimmune diseases. This type of diet is believed to be connected to inflammation, which could trigger an immune response, but this has not yet been proven.
Some studies show that if you have one autoimmune condition it could make you susceptible to another. And while research has shown that gluten withdrawal doesn’t protect you from autoimmune disease, one particular autoimmune disease certainly does require gluten avoidance. Celiac disease is a severe reaction to gluten, and if you have this condition, you must avoid these products.
Should I avoid eating these foods?
When it comes to diet, there’s no one rule for everyone. Lifestyle choices are not a one-size-fits-all situation, as what could be beneficial for one person could trigger health issues in another. Generally, it’s best to be in tune with your body and keep an eye out for any new sensations, food sensitivities, or symptoms you may develop as you get older.
That said, if you have a known autoimmune disease, avoiding these foods will nearly always be beneficial. If you have a disease like diabetes, make sure you have it under control before making any dietary changes, and discuss any big changes you plan to make with your doctor. In almost all cases, moving to a healthy diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables will only benefit you, but your doctor should be consulted first so they can adjust any medication you are currently taking, if necessary.
Avoiding some of these foods, such as alcohol, processed foods, artificial additives and preservatives, refined products, and those high in sugar (especially added sugar) are a good idea for anyone, whether you suffer from an autoimmune disease or not.
Here are some low FODMAP & anti-inflammatory foods that I recommend to patients with gastrointestinal issues:
- Tomatoes (like Cherry, Roma)
- Sweet Potato
- Leafy greens (like Cabbage, Kale, and Lettuce)
- Melon (like Cantaloupe, Honeydew)
- Berries (like Blueberries, Raspberries, Strawberries)
- Fermented, probiotic-rich foods (like Kombucha, Kimchi)
Many people also choose to cut down on “high-gas” food and drink such as alcohol, fizzy drinks, and coffee.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.