Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks its own cells instead of invading viruses or bacteria. SLE causes inflammation which leads to damage to organs and pain and can suddenly surge into periods of acute symptoms called flares. Many people with lupus have noticed that eating certain foods can be one of the personal triggers of lupus flares.
When you read anecdotes online, you’ll see that diet is far more than a source of nutrition — some people claim it’s a way to get the upper hand in the battle with lupus.
Several diets are very beneficial for people with lupus, and many of them have premade meal delivery services available. This can make it easier to eat well. However, when deciding whether to change your diet, always talk to your doctor first.
So, what diets may be helpful for Lupus Warriors?
Calorie Restricted Diets
People with lupus can have trouble managing their weight due to fatigue and pain, and some turn to calorie-restricted diets to try to bring their weight under control. According to studies, calorie-restricted diets have helped people with lupus maintain a 10% loss of bodyweight over two years, and lower the risks of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Calorie-restricted diets consist of whole fruits, grains, and lean meats. With fiber helping to “fill you up” and make the body feel satiated. The diet focuses on foods that are low-carbohydrate and low-fat. Specifically, people on this diet avoid cream, processed grains, and sugar.
However, this diet is less about “what” you eat, but more about “how” you eat it:
- Eat slowly and stop before you feel full. It takes a while for the stomach to detect fullness and send the necessary signals to the brain. So by eating slowly, you are less likely to overeat and will feel more satisfied with less.
- Portion out food with measuring tools or use small plates or bowls. So that you have control over your food amounts. Don’t eat more than what you measure out!
- Eat many small meals throughout the day instead of two or three large meals. Smaller meals spaced out over shorter intervals allow you to get more energy out of your food, feel less bloated, and allow you to feel satiated with less caloric intake.
Calorie-restricted diets may not be right for all people with lupus, especially if they are already on very limited diets. Overall, it is recommended that a person prioritizes getting proper nutrition over controlling calories. However, eating many small meals or snacks throughout the day, eating slowly, and taking in more dietary fiber are generally good eating practices for everyone.
The Autoimmune Protocol Diet (AIP)
The Autoimmune Protocol Diet is a diet that specifically eliminates or restricts foods associated with inflammation. All sugars, processed foods, grains, legumes (including beans), dairy products, and seed oils are forbidden. In this way, it is very similar to the “Paleo Diet”. Where it differs from the paleo diet is that it also restricts
- nuts and seeds (including coffee and chocolate,)
- nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants, potato,)
- alternative sweeteners
- and many thickeners.
What people can eat on the AIP diet are:
- fresh vegetables
- lean meats
- whole foods
- coconut oil
- olive oil
- sweet potato
- unprocessed sugars (honey and maple syrup)
- non-dairy fermented foods (such as pickles or kimchi)
The AIP diet seems to work for people with autoimmune diseases and people claim that it has significantly improved their quality of life.
When targeted specifically for lupus, it generally includes whole vegetables, fiber, and turmeric. Plus, AIP excludes or restricts garlic and alcohol. Because this diet avoids known inflammation triggers, it can help reduce symptoms and increase tolerance for those triggers as the body heals.
AIP diets are, however, heavily restrictive and it can be difficult to get enough protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Maintaining a diet this restrictive can be a major challenge. It’s important to find recipes that work and plan out meals. Otherwise, there won’t be enough nutrition and it will be easy to slip into more convenient habits.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is based off of what people traditionally eat in the regions near the Mediterranean sea. The diet is heavy in olive oil and encourages the use of whole vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans and other legumes, nuts and seeds.
The Mediterranean diet is very fish-focused, avoiding most other meats (both poultry and red meat) dairy products, and high-cholesterol items like eggs. Sugar, sweets, processed grains or oils, and high-sodium or preservative foods are completely excluded. Red wine is permitted, but in moderation.
The Mediterranean Diet is high in “good” fats like unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, high in essential nutrients. At the same time, it’s low in carbohydrates, cholesterol, “bad” fats, and inflammation-promoting foods.
There aren’t a lot of artery-clogging saturated fats in this diet. Instead, you get high levels of vitamin D (found in oily fish) and plenty of antioxidants, which protect cells from damage. The Mediterranean diet is also a lot less restrictive than many other medical diets. Because it was a “fad” diet for a long time, there is a lot of support (recipes and meal plans) for it. It also generally tastes good, and the ingredients is easily available and simple to cook.
In general, the Mediterranean diet is not a bad diet to try when first exploring the effect of food on your lupus symptoms and overall health. It’s easy to start, and you can tailor it to you personally. This is done by excluding food ingredients until you no longer have flares. It should be noted that nightshades like tomatoes and potatoes are not excluded from the Mediterranean diet and are potentially inflammatory foods. Not all people react to nightshades, but it is something to consider.
The Nordic diet
The Nordic Diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, in that it encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meats rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish. However, it includes dairy products, which can be inflammatory. It is based on the food of Scandinavian countries, and as such also emphasizes organic, seasonal, and local foods.
The Nordic diet is not really designed for any health benefit or for weight loss. Instead, it encourages a generally healthy diet and “slowing down and appreciating your food”. It is time-consuming and can be difficult to source the food. However, if you have access to fresh, seasonal food and are able to cook (or have someone who can do it for you,) it is a decent, non-restrictive, generally healthy diet to start with.
Vegan diets avoid all animal products and are generally done for ethical reasons (to avoid exploiting animals) or environmental reasons (acknowledging that meat production has a large carbon footprint). Some people also start a vegan diet for health reasons. But if veganism is not practiced carefully, it can lead to serious nutrient deficiencies. Some vegan “mock meats” or “cheeses” are also made of heavily processed ingredients, which are linked to increased inflammation.
Vegan diets are rich in fiber and low on calories, however, so they can lead to weight loss. There is some evidence of health benefits, but vegan diets require heavy planning and supplements to ensure that they get enough nutrients. It is difficult to balance veganism with heavily restricted diets. But it is possible to have vegan calorie-restricted, Mediterranean, or AIP diets, as long as there are alternate source of protein and omega 3 fatty acids present.
If you are switching to a vegan diet, it is very important that you talk to a nutritionist to help make sure you get the nutrients that you need.
The Keto Diet is not recommended for people with lupus
Keto is a low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diet that was designed to reduce certain types of epileptic seizures in children. The idea behind it is that, when the body is deprived of carbohydrates, the liver starts breaking down fat into ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are a sort of “emergency fuel” for the body. Which it uses when it is in “survival mode”. Because it is a “fat-burning” diet, many people believe that it can help them with weight loss.
The Keto diet encourages eating saturated fats, which are linked to heightened heart disease and stroke risks. It restricts fruits and vegetables, limiting access to a vital source of many nutrients. The liver and kidneys, which are both under stress in people with lupus, can potentially get overloaded and injured on a ketogenic diet. Carbohydrates are also the preferred fuel for the brain, and a high-protein diet can starve the brain. For people with certain types of epilepsy, this can help a great deal. But, for people with lupus who already have to deal with brain fog, fatigue, depression, and anxiety, a keto diet can potentially make these things worse.
Foods to Avoid with Lupus
The diets that are effective at reducing lupus symptoms generally seek to provide the right amount of nutrition while reducing inflammation. Of course, diet goes both ways. Some foods can trigger flares, increase inflammation, or otherwise worsen the symptoms of lupus. People with lupus are advised to avoid certain foods.
Garlic is rich in ajoene, allicin, and thiosulfinates, which stimulate the immune system. This makes garlic a useful dietary supplement for fighting disease. The substances in garlic can turn the immune system up too high and trigger lupus flares. It is best to avoid garlic and use other aromatics, such as onions, instead.
Sodium and Salt
Too much salt in the diet increases inflammation by starting a chain reaction in the body that ends up producing more TH17 cells, a pro-inflammatory molecule. It can also put pressure on the heart and circulatory system, which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. You can read more about stroke risks and lupus here. People with lupus should avoid processed foods that are high in salt to avoid this risk.
A healthy amount of salt is 1.53 teaspoons per day (2,300 mg per day). And a reasonable amount of that comes from whole foods diets without much additional salt.
Sugar and Lupus
Sugar is linked to poor oral health (which can already be a challenge for Lupus Warriors due to gum inflammation). It is also associated with fatigue, pain, heart disease, liver damage, and increased inflammation.
Sugar also can lead to obesity. It encourages fluid retention and swelling. For people with lupus on steroids, this can be exacerbated by sugars. Weight gain is associated with high cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and inflammation on its own, so it’s a good idea to avoid sugar if possible.
People with lupus should also avoid artificial sweeteners. Sweet potatoes can help with those cravings 🙂 And, removing sugar from the diet makes it easier to avoid over time.
Alcohol and Lupus
People with lupus should avoid drinking alcohol in large amounts. Alcohol interacts with many medications. It can also increase blood flow which lets immune system cells reach more parts of the body.
Going gluten-free isn’t always the right fit for people with lupus, but there is some overlap in people with celiac, gluten intolerance, and other autoimmune diseases like lupus. Some people do have issues with gluten, which inflames and damages their guts and even trigger the onset of disease. This is not the case for all people with lupus, however.
Even if you don’t have a gluten intolerance, cutting out gluten-rich foods like bread, pasta, and wheat flour isn’t a bad idea. By cutting out these foods, you are likely to reduce carbohydrate intake, which can help with losing weight.
What’s worked for you?
Have you tried a specific diet to help minimize symptoms or battle lupus? If so, has it worked?
Drop a comment below or share your story with the LupusCorner team — and you may be featured in an upcoming post!
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