Whether you’ve been newly diagnosed or have been living with an autoimmune disorder for a number of years, you’re most likely eager to gain some control over your flare-ups.
Food in particular plays an important part in achieving optimal health by providing the essential nutrients your body and immune system need to thrive, which is why you might want to choose wisely when it comes to the foods you eat since your diet might be able to help with the severity of your autoimmune flare-ups. But where to start?
“Though there’s no evidence that any particular food will prevent or trigger an autoimmune condition, there are some key nutrients to consider,” Meghan Lyle, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, tells SheKnows. “Some autoimmune conditions can produce inflammation, and some chronic non-autoimmune conditions also result in chronic levels of inflammation. We’re still gaining understanding of how dietary pattern impacts inflammation, but it is clear that there is a role for diet.”
If you’re having trouble with navigating which nutritional advice to take to help combat your autoimmune disorder, read on to learn which foods could help ease your next inflammation trigger and help you live your best life.
Eat more fibrous veggies
If you have an autoimmune disorder, the foods you eat have “to both reduce excessive inflammation as well as repair the underlying tissue damage that is causing a constant source of that inflammation,” says Dr. Barry Sears a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition, author of the Zone Diet book series and president of the nonprofit Inflammation Research Foundation.
He tells SheKnows he recommends foods rich in fermentable fiber, as it appears “that many autoimmune diseases have their origin in the gut, and fermentable fiber is critical for maintaining gut health.” Sears also suggests eating at least eight servings per day of non-starchy vegetables — like cauliflower, broccoli and green beans — to provide fermentable fiber to reduce a leaky gut.
Similarly, Lyle recommends a diet rich of bright-colored fruits and veggies. “The richly colored array of fruits and vegetables gain their color from key phytonutrients. Some appear to modulate inflammation, others support the body’s natural detoxification systems, and others have a role in maintaining optimal vascular function among other things,” she says. “We know that a diet very high in richly colored fruits and vegetables can reduce inflammation and enhance immune cell function.”
Next time you’re at the grocery store, reach for foods like colored peppers, leafy green lettuce, eggplant, radishes and carrots.
Include omega-3 fatty acids
According to both Sears and Lyle, your foods should also be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are key mediators of inflammation and tend to be low in the average person’s diet,” says Lyle.
As for why they work, “[These foods] help to promote the formation of pro-resolution hormones that reverse inflammatory responses,” says Sears, who recommends consuming at least five grams of omega-3 fatty acids — EPA and DHA — per day.
Plant oils, such as flaxseed oil, nuts and seeds as well as fish, especially cold-water fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, are examples of foods all rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Don’t forget polyphenols
Sears also recommends reaching for foods rich in polyphenols “to activate the genes that can repair the tissue damage that is causing the constant generation of inflammation.”
Polyphenols have antioxidant properties and protect plants from ultraviolet radiation. They can be found in foods like berries, dark chocolate, beets, pecans and most spices.
Check out selenium
“Selenium is critical to thyroid health [and] DNA synthesis and serves as a key antioxidant in addition to being involved in many other enzymatic reactions throughout the body,” Lyle says.
A trace mineral, selenium helps your body produce antioxidant enzymes, which help to prevent cell damage.
Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium. It can also be found in eggs, lean meats and poultry, and fish, including yellowfin tuna, which is another excellent source of selenium, she adds.
Foods to avoid
But what should people with autoimmune conditions stay away from?
“Though we can’t say for sure that a particular food can be causative in immune disease, there are foods to limit for an overall anti-inflammatory approach and ensure the immune system is robustly supported,” says Lyle. “There is evidence that a diet high in red and processed meat, full-fat dairy, refined grains, saturated fats, added sugar and trans fat can promote inflammation.”
Along the same lines, Sears recommends avoiding high-glycemic carbs, especially refined carbs, such as grains and starches, as “they will increase insulin levels. And you should also avoid omega-6 and saturated fats, as they will increase inflammation levels.”
Grocery shopping doesn’t need to be difficult
As Lyle points out, eating the recommended foods doesn’t mean you have to overhaul everything today. “Even taking a few small steps to build on what you already do can be huge,” she says. “If you’re not eating fish, see if you can incorporate it at least once a week. If you’re eating only one vegetable per day, strive for two — one at lunch, one at dinner.”
And while there isn’t a cure to autoimmune disorders, Sears says that your inflammation-fighting diet needn’t be boring.
“Imagine you are going to Italy and just eating everything except the bread, pasta and rice. No one has ever complained about eating grilled vegetables [and] grilled fish and having fresh fruit for dessert."