6 Golden Rules When Using Diet to Manage Health and Autoimmune Disease

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Starting an elimination diet, where you’re trying to figure out which foods trigger problems for your autoimmune disease or health issue, can be daunting… but the benefits are, for many of us, SO worth it.

These are 6 hard-won rules that I suggest following when you’re starting out. Stick to these and you can get to where you want to be much faster than the ‘needle in the haystack’ trap that most of us fall into.

Transcript of this Episode

In today’s episode, I want to talk about some golden rules that I would suggest following if you’re thinking of using diet to manage your health condition.

Maybe you have an autoimmune disease like I do, or maybe you are feeling fatigued, or you have some other health issues.

These are the things I found most helpful in my own journey, and I wanted to share them with you today so that you don’t hit the same pitfalls and stumbling blocks that I did when I was starting out.

Really, this is about just accelerating your success because if you follow these, and if you really stick to it and maintain that willpower, I feel really confident that you can achieve some amazing results. So let’s get started with the first one…

Rule 1: Start Small

When you’re starting with diet, the key is to start small. Start really minimal.

Start with some basic safe foods that from your understanding, whether it’s through your own research, reading papers combined with going on forums and groups or speaking to your doctor or functional doctor, whoever it is, have a list of safe foods that are generally agreed to be things that are less likely to trigger your issue.

Have a list of those and just stick to them.

You’re just going to stick to them for at least a few months and try to get to pain-free.

So I’ll give you an example. I have ankylosing spondylitis, and all the information I came across suggested that to see if diet could work for me, I needed to try and avoid starch and dairy. And then a bit more digging suggested I should avoid seed oil, ultra-processed foods, sugar, and there were a whole host of other things.

Rather than make it a whole big, fairly miserable list of things that I couldn’t eat, it made much more sense to make a list of things that I could eat. Things that were generally agreed didn’t seem to trigger people who were trying the same diet.

In this case, that tended to be things like animal products, so beef, chicken, lamb, or fish, that kind of thing. It also seemed to be things like leafy salads and certain non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, as long as it’s not starchy.

And also, most people seem to agree that berries were pretty safe in moderation, but other than that, there was a bit of a question mark…

There were certain other foods that some people seemed to tolerate well, but some people had a good reaction, some people had a bad reaction, some people worked well with it a few years into the diet, and so really, you don’t want to have that kind of minefield to navigate.

If you’re starting with a really quite minimal list, there are fewer things to go wrong, and it’s easier to identify what’s working and what isn’t.

If you’re starting with, say, 50 different foods or 50 different ingredients, then it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

How are you going to know what’s working and what isn’t?

Rule 2: Stick to ONE Method

That’s why I recommend starting with what are generally perceived to be the safest bet for your particular condition. I would suggest doing that for several weeks, certainly a few months. And then what you want to do is try to get to pain-free or try to get to the outcome that you’re desiring.

Maybe you don’t have an autoimmune disease, and maybe you’re looking for increased energy levels? In that case, it might be that your goal is feeling more energized.

The key is to keep it simple, start minimal.

I know people who were following the ankylosing spondylitis diet, for example, who just had chicken and broccoli for months. They literally just had those two things. That was the level of willpower they had. Obviously, they weren’t pregnant and they were checking that it was safe to do so. As ever, if you have a particular condition or blood sugar issues or anything like that, then check with your doctor or nutritionist to make sure whatever you do is safe.

But in my case, the most profound results were really by sticking to it.

And it’s going to be hard, you’re going to think, “oh, what about all these things I miss and I love?” If it means that you’re going to have the fastest outcome and you’re going to have the least pain, then it is absolutely worth it, I promise you.

It’s the most frustrating thing when you know that things are having some sort of impact, but there are so many things that you’re trying that you don’t quite know which is which, or which element you can withdraw, or which you can add back in. And once again, you’re looking for that needle in a haystack.

So do the hard work at the start.

It’s going to save you a huge amount of time, and you probably will get hunger pangs as your body’s changing. You’ll get, you know, your gut and your body is having to process different foods. In my case, for example, it was processing fat instead of carbohydrates.

To begin with, I had some confusing mood swings and I had crazy hunger pangs, and I lost some weight really quickly at the beginning, but it all levelled out. It was just my body going, “whoa, that’s all really strange, what’s going on there?” But very quickly, things went back to normal. I say very quickly. I think after about, I’ll do a separate post on this, but I think after about six months to a year, I was getting unbelievable benefits.

I was getting some benefits after a few days, and I was getting some really noticeable benefits after a month.

It was several months in that it became life-changing. It was like, “oh my goodness, I am never going to need medication to manage this condition”, which, if you’ve heard of this autoimmune disease or if you have it, that’s just something which will change your life forever. So that was the first point: Start with safe foods, start minimal, get to that pain-free level. The second rule is to stick to one method.

I’m specifically highlighting this because I often come across people, and this includes close friends, who are struggling with a health issue, and I’ll use the example of another autoimmune condition…

There was a friend who’s really struggling with bloating and other issues, and they quickly discovered that they were struggling with candida overgrowth. Now there’s a lot of information about this. There are a lot of books written on this.

There are huge Facebook groups and forums where you can read information, and there are dozens of websites which are all talking in good faith about what they believe will help you to fix it. But the problem is this…

There’s so much information that it can be completely overwhelming. And in the case of the friend I was talking to, they were starting a diet and they were cutting out a bunch of stuff, and they had a list of what they thought was safe…

And then the next week, they would read a different blog or they’d see a different post on social media and they would go, “oh no, I need to do this instead”. And so then they throw in a different food or a different ingredient or they’d give up our alcohol or they’d reintroduce it.

They weren’t sticking to one method, and that meant it was incredibly hard to know what was working and what wasn’t. And they were definitely getting some good results. I think they said they were getting a 70% decrease at one point, which is amazing. But then they were getting relapses.

The problem is if you are trying four or five different methods all at once, and you’re seeing one blog where someone’s written about what worked for them, and then you’re mixing that information with what worked for someone else on social media, it’s going to get really, really difficult. It’s not because those giving the advice are wrong or bad, or they’re giving false information. The reason is we’re all different. We have different biologies.

Your microbiome, and even your genetic makeup, is going to look different from the person who wrote that really helpful blog post or the person sharing information on social media. So what works for them might work differently for you. And that’s part of the discovery.

Whatever you do, try to stay consistent. So going back to point one, have the smallest set of safe foods at the start to have a healthy diet, and then just stick with it. You can add things in later.

To begin with, have a nice minimal set of foods that are healthy and that are going to keep you nourished, and just stick to it and try not to let all the noise and information overwhelm you.

Rule 3: Take Notes

That leads us on to our third rule, and it connects really with the last two, which is to record absolutely everything.

I’m a massive fan of this. This has had such a profound effect on me, and it’s one of the reasons actually I’ve had the confidence to produce the Gut Heroes website and to start this podcast is because I have been so meticulous about everything I’ve recorded.

It means I have real confidence when I’m telling you about things that have worked for me and even things like these rules we’re talking about now, that I’m not just looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses or saying it on a whim or I’ve had a sort of cognitive bias or anything like that. These are things that I’ve tried and things that have worked for me, certainly, and hopefully, you know, might work for some of you.

I know this because I’ve kept really strict records every single day. That has enabled me to look back to look back at these records and go, “Okay, on this date I was feeling this amount of pain in my sacroiliac joint, for example, on my left side. What was I doing the day before or on that day?” And then I can look at what I had for lunch or what I had for dinner.

I could look at how much exercise I did. I could look at all of these different variables, which I found helpful to record on my spreadsheet. And then it just helps build this amazing picture.

Sometimes you’re going to get it wrong and that’s ok. Sometimes you might make a correlation between something you ate and how you felt afterwards, and it might not be right. But over time, you’re going to get a much clearer picture, and that’s going to error-correct. The anomalies will start to become clearer and sort of fade out.

The really consistent threads, the foods that are making you feel great, the foods that are not making you feel great, they’re going to start to become clear.

I’m still discovering things now. I’m nearly three years into my diet and my lifestyle changes, and I’m adding new categories all the time. And it’s amazing just getting all these incremental improvements and learning more about what’s working and what isn’t. So I really, really recommend doing that.

And I’m going to do a proper deep dive into how I do it specifically for me. It might be different for you, what works for you, but I will share with you the spreadsheets I use. They’re completely free, and then you can adapt them to something that works for you.

Or you can try a different method. I know people who use apps that you can get from Apple or on the Google Play Store, and some of these apps let you record what you’re doing during the day, all of that kind of thing.

I personally don’t love these just because if the app company goes down, then you know I’ve lost all that information, and also some of them are quite expensive; they often charge a monthly fee..

If I have a spreadsheet, I can completely customise what I have as my metrics and what I’m recording and what I’m not recording, and I can do it from my phone, I can do it from my computer, I can do it offline, online, and it’s just really great; it updates across all devices. So I’ll do more information on that. I think it’s absolutely so important.

Okay, so that’s recording and taking notes, the best possible way of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Rule 4: Don’t Cheat!

Our next rule is really, really simple and easy to remember, maybe harder to do, and that is not to cheat.

So many times when I see people in forums or on social media who are following diets to manage their condition, they put a post saying, “I’m doing the diet, and it’s not working,” and this, that, and the other. And people then say “so what have you been eating?”

I would say like eight times out of 10, they will list something which is a trigger food, is a problem food for whatever condition they have.

People will flag that up, and then more often than not, they go, “well, I had to have a break, I had to have a cheat day, I can’t completely cut out everything!”

There’ll be all these reasons and excuses, and I totally get it.

It’s really hard giving up foods that you’re used to, giving up foods that are convenient.

But the way I see it, and it’s a bit like this with the starting minimal, starting small rule, is that if you want to get to pain-free or if you want to get to your health outcome, you’ve got to stay really, really strict.

This is important.

You’ve just got to stick with the programme because as soon as you start cheating and introducing things that could be a trigger, then you’re going to be off the programme, and you’re not going to know what’s working and what isn’t.

In some cases, you’re going back to square one. So as tempting as it is, if you’re in this elimination phase, you’re in the early stages of using diet, and you get to the weekend, for example, and someone says, “should we go for a drink or go for a meal?” and you think, “oh, I’m tired from work, I just need this treat” try to stay strong.

This isn’t about having a horrible time and restricting yourself. This is about getting to a place where you’re going to feel better than you ever have done, potentially in your life. I mean, that’s where I’m at.

So flip the narrative and think, this is going to get me to be the person I really want to be. The person whose mood is improved, who doesn’t have pain, who feels great, who has energy.

In my case, I was giving up starch. I can live without having a pizza or some pasta if it means I’m not walking around limping, wondering how much longer I can live with this. For me, that was quite an easy motivator, but I totally understand that people will be on different levels of disease progression.

They’ll have different ailments, they’ll have different health issues, and if it’s a niggling pain or it’s something like fatigue, it might be even more tempting just to go “I’m just going to take a break from the diet, and I’m just going to give myself a little treat.”

But that is going to really, really hold you back.

So don’t cheat, be strict.

It’s being really kind to yourself by doing that. And it’s just going to give you a shortcut, once again, to the best possible outcome.

Rule 5: Test One Thing at a Time

The next thing is to test one thing at a time. So I talked a bit earlier about how you want to start small and you want to have a small basis of safe foods. And ideally, you want to get to pain-free or to whatever outcome that you want to have for as long as it takes to get to that point.

Maybe it takes four months or five months to get to that point. When you get to that point, brilliant. That’s absolutely amazing.

When you get here, you can start to look at potentially introducing other foods, which maybe were ones that most people thought were safe or okay with your particular autoimmune disease or ailment, but there was a bit of a question mark as to whether it would be something you do during an elimination diet or when you’re starting out in the diet.

This is the time to reintroduce those things, but do it one at a time.

Don’t get to pain-free and say “I’m going to now have these five or six ingredients that had question marks next to them”. As soon as you do that, you’re going to get straight back to that needle in a haystack moment, and you’re not going to know what’s causing what, and it’s going to be so frustrating.

It’s just going to set you back once again.

The best thing to do, and we’ll all have different time scales on this, is do one thing at a time.

What I do is I give it, ideally if it’s a foodstuff, between one and two weeks.

For example, let’s say there was a vegetable that was something that should be fine, but you weren’t sure about, and you wanted to reintroduce that as soon as you were pain-free. Reintroduce that into a few meals over the course of a week or two weeks, see how you get on.

If you notice no negative impacts or if you feel good as a result, great. That’s back into your roster. That’s another food you can eat. And then just repeat the process with each food.

You’ll quickly find before long, you’ve got this amazing list of foods that you can eat and that you can thrive with, and you’re not scratching your head wondering what impacts what.

It’s a really, really helpful thing to do because it just keeps you focused and understanding what in particular works for you specifically, not anyone else, what works with your body and your biology.

This is a really important rule when it comes to testing things like supplements or other environmental factors, for example.

If you’re testing a supplement, make sure you’re doing that on its own.

Don’t test four or five supplements at once.

When I started out, that was something I did a lot. I was kind of shortlisting all of these weird and wonderful things that I was finding on forums and obscure research papers.

I was going, “oh, there’s a chance that could work for my ankylosing spondylitis, great, I’m going to buy that”. Amazon was sending all of these packages of strange powders and lotions and pills and all this kind of stuff, and I was taking them all at once, and I had no idea which one was working and which one wasn’t, and it was only when I got really strict and said, “right, stop everything, try one thing at a time, take notes for two weeks”.

Again, two weeks is what I personally do, that seems to work for me, and if after those two weeks, I’ve made notes every day, talked about how I felt with my symptoms, energy levels, sleep, all of those things, and if at the end of that I think I felt better, great, that stays in the list, and something I’ll continue to take. If I feel worse, I’ll get rid of it.

If it’s unclear, if I’m not sure, then I’ll just look at the science and the research. So, you know, there are some vitamins, for example, that are sort of widely acknowledged to be quite healthy. I’ll talk about these in future episodes, but there’s some decent evidence that over time, they’re good for most people.

If on balance, I think that is something that’s going to be good to do, even if I’m not feeling that immediate impact, then maybe I’ll keep that in the roster. But again, you can take it one case at a time. So that’s a really, really important one.

Reintroduce one thing at a time, whether it’s a food or a supplement or a medication or even something as simple as exercise, you know, I like to try exercises one at a time so I can just see specifically what is that doing, how is it improving my health outcome, and then that kind of leads us neatly round to the last one which is almost one which breaks the rules of everything.

Rule 6: Don’t Take Anything for Granted (Feel Free to Question!)

You’re going to see all of this information on blogs and on websites and on even research papers and certainly on forums saying that this works for me and this will work for you and in a lot of cases that’s going to be absolutely bang on. In some cases, it’s not going to apply to you.

You might have a different biology to that particular person, or you might have a gene variant or some environmental trigger which means that even though you have broadly the same set of symptoms or the same condition, that making this change to your life or taking this supplement or this food or whatever it is just won’t have the same impact or it might make you worse or it might make you have a different outcome.

So just bear that in mind and bear that in mind with yourself as well because we are not static. Our bodies change over time. And what we’re dealing with here, especially when it comes to food, is we’re dealing with our gut and we’re dealing with our microbiome and we’re dealing with our immune system. So all of these things are interacting in an incredible way. And the chances are if you’re listening to this, and especially if you’re someone that’s dealing with autoimmune disease, what has probably happened is you’ve got problems with the health of your gut.

Maybe the lining’s damaged, and then you’ve got a dysbiosis or an issue with the microbial population in there and this is causing your immune system to really react. Whether that’s causing skin problems, back problems, fatigue, any kind of other pain. The key here is restoring balance and finding what works.

At the beginning of your journey, that’s going to mean a lot of what I talked about today. It’s starting small, starting with safe foods that are not going to irritate your gut, that are not going to feed microbes that could cause your gut problem and make your immune system overreact.

It’s just taking those baby steps.

It’s just being really careful. It’s treading on eggshells just for that initial part of your journey.

But when you build up strength, when you get to pain-free, when you get to the health outcome you want, when you are really thriving and your body is stronger and your immune system is more regulated and your gut is healthier, then it’s going to be more resilient.

Then you’re going to be able to potentially reintroduce new things, things that even might not have been at all possible on your diet. So for example, on the diet I’m doing to manage my ankylosing spondylitis, I don’t have any starch at all.

Sure, I get tiny trace elements, but I do my absolute best to avoid it, and that’s just specific to the diet I’m following for my condition.

I know people who have followed the diet I’m doing for several years, and they’ve found maybe six years, seven years down the line that they’re actually able to reintroduce it because they’ve healed their gut, they’ve healed their body, and their immune system is now regulated to such a point where they can tolerate it in small amounts or even, you know, relatively frequently.

All of these things might sound strict or constricting, but they’re just temporary. They’re just part of the process of rehabilitating your body, of finding what works and what doesn’t, of getting rid of the things that are really overtly bad.

There’s going to be a lot of things there that probably no human should be eating, things like ultra-processed food, which is going to be something I’m going to be talking a lot about in this podcast because I think it really is the source of so many of our woes.

It’s stripping those things out of your life, getting yourself to a really good, strong baseline, and then reintroducing more things. But also just being aware over time you will change and that’s okay.

If you have a relapse or if something goes wrong or you make a mistake or even if you do cheat, don’t beat yourself up. Look at your notes, look at your records, what has worked in the past, what hasn’t. Know that you have the tools to really work out what works best for you.

It becomes second nature. It’s something that doesn’t have to be stressful.

I actually quite enjoy the whole process because making little changes that give you more energy or focus or, you know, the biggest motivator, getting rid of pain, is just incredible. So if I can make these little changes and I’m going to feel the best version of myself possible, then I think that’s just almost like a form of magic.

I really, really hope for the same for you, and I hope these rules help to give you some structure.

Just to recap, it’s…

1. Start small, start minimal, start with your safe foods. Smaller is better. We don’t need to have a thousand ingredients to choose from.

Stick with the ones that are widely acknowledged not to trigger problems.

2. Stay with one method.

Don’t get overwhelmed by things you read online.

3. Take notes and record everything so that you know what’s working and what doesn’t.

4. Don’t cheat no matter how tempting it is.

Stick to the programme because that’s going to mean you’re going to get to the best outcome in the fastest possible time.

If you do mess up, don’t beat yourself up; you can’t change it, just get back on the horse and try again.

5. Test one thing at a time.

Once you’ve got to pain-free, once you’ve got to the health outcome you want, reintroduce that food one at a time. Take notes, see what happens, if it was good, keep it in, if it was bad, take it out.

That goes the same with supplements and any other health protocol you’re trying.

6. Last of all, don’t take anything for granted.

Feel free to challenge what has worked for someone else, understand that your biology and your body will be different and so there might be little things that really work for you and don’t work for others and that your body will change over time.

Hopefully in the future you will have this amazing list of things that make you feel great and you can reintroduce foods that you might have missed and it really is just such an exciting journey and

I’m thrilled to have you here with me.

I hope this helped, these rules have been an absolute guiding force for me and I hope they help you too.

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