Common Pitfalls in Dietary Protocols for AS
Changing the way I eat has impacted my AS symptoms more than any other strategy.
A rheumatologist once told me “diet has zero impact on this condition”, which turned out to be completely wrong in my case. If only more doctors supported the now well-documented connection between gut health, nutrition and diseases like AS!
I focussed on diet and diet alone when I was first learning to self-manage my health with AS.
This was a mistake in itself, as I would later learn, because as powerful as food can be it’s not enough on its own.
I also made a lot of missteps around food and the strict protocols I implemented during that time. They slowed my recovery and erased much of the benefit I was trying to achieve.
Over time these have became valuable lessons I now share with others.
There are a lot of red flags which someone new to dietary change might not be aware of. These are the cautionary tales I share with clients before they start working on food as part of overall lifestyle change.
Here’s a list of my key learnings.
STRESS AROUND EATING
If a protocol is causing stress you can be sure it’s undoing a lot of your good work.
This can take the form of emotional stress from feeling isolated, overwhelmed or miserable because of food.
It can also be the physiological stress of making large scale changes too quickly, not adequately fuelling your body or jumping headlong into something like fasting without adequate preparation.
Most of us know how stress impacts our system with AS; it’s a direct path to increased pain and inflammation. When we are emotionally stressed our body suppresses digestion, further limiting our ability to break down and absorb food and compromising gut health.
Physiological stress blocks our ability to heal by putting the systems of our body into overdrive.
Dietary protocols that cause stress will deplete, not restore, your health.
STRICT PROTOCOLS SHOULDN’T BE FOREVER
Discipline around strict protocols can sometimes be a trap.
I found myself stuck in a limited diet and thought the answer was to keep pushing through. By the end of a year I was exhausted, too thin and had developed disordered eating.
I now know I hadn’t been implementing the diet correctly and that I shouldn’t have kept trying for so long.
It isn’t appropriate to stay on a strictly limited diet for months on end.
There are some exceptions to this (serious food allergies), but on the whole a diet that excludes entire natural food groups on a permanent basis is a red flag.
If you aren’t progressing or improving it’s time to seek guidance from someone qualified to offer supervision in that protocol.
ELIMINATION WITHOUT HEALING
A lot of dietary protocols focus on simply removing foods that cause a reaction.
This can be great for providing immediate relief from symptoms, at least in the short term and for as long as those foods are avoided.
But this approach doesn’t support healing and recovery. This means you will need to keep excluding potentially beneficial foods until the root cause (an unhealthy gut) is addressed.
I eliminated all starch in my early days with AS and found my pain reduced almost straight away. As soon as I tried to reintroduce any starch (a small piece of banana or sweet potato) symptoms returned.
If even minuscule amounts of starch crept into my diet I’d be back in pain again. It really got me down, and I became suspicious of everything I put in my mouth.
It was only once I introduced healing foods like wild fermented vegetables, meat stocks and healthy fats that I could reintroduce starchy foods without a problem. If I’d not focussed on adding those healing foods in I would potentially still be avoiding starches today.
Additionally, I now know that by eliminating resistant starches I was missing out on foods which are the food source for good bacteria and are crucial to maintaining a healthy microbiome.
Cutting out certain natural foods can be helpful in the short-term, but without a healing component this isn’t a sustainable long-term approach.
DIET ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH
Once again, I learned this the hard way. Neglecting my mental and emotional health, not moving my body and stubbornly rejecting pain relief medication kept me from progressing and restoring my overall health and wellbeing.
It was only once I built a more wholistic lifestyle plan for myself that everything fell into place and my AS symptoms subsided for good.
Applying a balanced, whole-person approach means there’s no need to go to stressful extremes in one particular area.
When we are moving our bodies, getting sleep and fresh air, working on our stress levels and seeking out joy in our lives, we increase the margin for flexibility and are less likely to flare after a mouthful of the “wrong” food.
Leaning too heavily on one aspect, such as diet, leaves us vulnerable to even small missteps derailing our progress. It cannot be the only strategy we apply.
Diet is hugely important and a great place to start when creating a self-management plan for your health with AS in mind. Keeping these red flags in mind will help you maximise your chances of success.