3 Challenges of the Autoimmune Paleo Diet on Holidays and How I Make It Work

I get a bit anxious every time a holiday comes around. As a Canadian with an American husband (and both of us from separated families), this time of year means I worry about four Thanksgiving meals and multiple Christmas dinners. I worry because I’m on the AIP diet (Autoimmune Paleo/Protocol diet) to manage symptoms related to autoimmune thyroid disease.

Amongst other things, AIP stipulates no processed foods, alcohol, grains, dairy, nuts or seeds, beans, nightshade vegetables (think tomato, eggplant, peppers), and limits sugars. I also have allergies to animal proteins (chicken, beef, lamb, etc.), so I rely on seafood for my protein needs. My diet is nothing like the Standard American Diet (SAD) but it doesn’t become an issue unless I’m traveling or eating out, which are both required of me (and many others on highly structured diets) during holidays.

Challenge #1: Getting There

Our family members live within a five-to-10-hour radius from us and, given the high cost of flights and baggage limits, it almost always makes more sense to drive than to fly. These drives take us through very rural areas, which means food options are often limited to fast food take-out or gas station snacks. Even when we decide to detour 30 minutes off the highway in search of a restaurant, there’s never a guarantee there will be a menu item that’s totally AIP-compliant. Eating non-AIP means poor sleep, sore joints, and brain fog for me, so I avoid it when possible.

How I make it work:

• Pack snacks – Chips (plantain, sweet potato, coconut, kale), dates and coconut butter (slice open a date and smear some coconut butter inside – it’s delish!), carbonated water and lemon/lime juice, AIP power/energy balls (different recipes available online), and (if not crossing a border) fresh oranges, avocados, berries, and cut veggies (carrots, celery, cauliflower, etc.). If you’re not allergic to meat, you can also get different kinds of jerky!

• Find restaurants in advance – Doing research in a moving car, while you’re hungry, is the worst. Figure out approximately where in your trip you’ll need to stop for meals and find a restaurant in each area that can best meet your dietary needs.

• Pack digestive enzymes – Most people on AIP also have issues with digestion, especially when eating heavy or processed meals. If you have to eat outside of AIP, I recommend at least taking digestive enzymes to help your stomach break down the proteins before they get into your gut and wreak havoc.

Challenge #2: Eating the Holiday Meal

I can never eat what my family is eating. Never. They love meat, dairy, and gluten, so it’s just a given. I could wallow in self-pity but (speaking from experience) that just ruins the holiday altogether. So I have learned the best approach is to be proactive.

How I make it work:

• Share information – If you have a supportive family member, explain the AIP diet to them and why you need to stick to it. Send them a grocery list or a couple recipes (well in advance) so they can do what they can to accommodate you. Then be sure to thank this person!

• Bring food – Either stop at a grocery store and prepare AIP meals at your family members’ homes or make food in advance and bring it with you. Soup travels really well and mashed cauliflower holds up in place of mashed potatoes!

• Always make an AIP treat – I love pumpkin pie. Love it. Watching family members load up on gluten- and dairy-laden pumpkin pie can be painful. So I found a recipe and now I just make an AIP pumpkin pie. It’s delicious, I don’t feel left out, and I’ve even saved the day for other guests who have food allergies because it’s totally free of common food allergens! (Don’t like pumpkin pie? Try AIP coconut ice cream or AIP cake!)

• Don’t stress if you cheat a bit – I get it. It’s hard not to cheat during the holidays. I always end up with a glass of wine in my hand (or two, or three). Just avoid cheating on foods that you know affect you really badly and don’t stress or obsess over the cheats you make. Stress will just amplify whatever immune response you have and make it last longer.

Challenge #3: Family Members’ Attitudes

This has been the toughest challenge for me, by far. I love my family, so much. But they all eat a SAD diet and just don’t understand why my meals are so “weird.” When I’m cooking it’s not unusual for them to stand and around and watch, commenting on the odd ingredients or smells (I like fried squid for breakfast, what can I say?). I’ve also lost weight eating AIP because it’s allowing my metabolism to work normally again, so there’s often a misconception that I’m eating this way to stay thin rather than to improve my health. I’ll hear comments like “You need to eat a hamburger” or “You don’t need to diet—you’re already so skinny!” I would love to eat a hamburger. I would love not to be on the AIP diet. But those aren’t options for me, so these types of comments hurt.

How I make it work:

• Educate loved ones – Explain your illness, the symptoms, and how the AIP diet helps manage those symptoms. Not everyone is going to want to listen or believe you, but some will.

• Find an ally – My husband understands what happens when I deviate from AIP, so when I’m feeling cornered by family members (especially on his side) we have a signal (a squeeze on the arm) so he knows when to step in and defend me. This could be anyone: a parent, sibling, or close friend.

• Breathe through it – Not every moment is going to be a “teachable moment” and you shouldn’t spend your whole holiday talking about your condition and restrictions (that’s just going to put you in a negative head space). I do my best not to draw attention to my alternative food and only engage if someone asks about it specifically. I give a concise response: “I’m on a special diet for medical reasons.”

Few people dig any deeper, but for those who are interested, I’m always open to educating them about it. If someone makes an uninformed or rude comment about my diet, I often just take a deep breath and move on. The inability to understand the AIP lifestyle is usually a result of never having had to live with chronic illness, and I would never wish chronic illness on any loved one.

Eating AIP over the holidays can be tough, but with a little planning, creativity, and patience I am confident we can all savor the season once again!

How do you make AIP work over the holidays? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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