Generally speaking, those who live an active lifestyle — as opposed to being highly sedentary — you’re less likely to get sick. That’s good news. But if you’re prone to, or struggling with, an autoimmune disorder, you should approach your nutrition strategically. Added stress (and yes, this includes physical stress from exercise!) can cause inflammatory flare-ups, stomach discomfort, and joint pain and stiffness.
The key to managing and fighting off autoimmune disorders? A healthy, whole-foods meal plan. More specifically, you should eat more plants, including plant protein. Research shows that cooking plant-based meals is by far the best tactic to craft a plant-based diet for autoimmune disease prevention that works.
We're not exactly sure what causes various autoimmune disorders. Some common ones — like Type I diabetes, celiac disease, Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s, and rheumatoid arthritis — are likely hereditary. But beyond genetics, research has found that stress and anxiety could cause autoimmune complications. Nicole German Morgan, RDN, LD, CLT, says that as endurance athletes place higher stress loads on the body, "this may aggravate or trigger an autoimmune condition if the body is not properly supported."
Your gut health (or lack of) also plays a big role in the status of your immune system. Natalie Allen, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University, says that a disruptive gut (which 30-50% of athletes report) can be a sign of an autoimmune condition.
Regardless, it's essential to get the nutritional support you need to power through training, and keep your immune system in check. And it starts by eating plant-based. Loop in your healthcare provider or a certified nutritionist to craft an immune-supporting meal plan that works for you. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
The Best Tips to Craft a Plant-Based Diet for Autoimmune Disease Prevention
1. Eat a high-protein, plant-based diet.
Athletes can benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of a vegan or vegetarian diet, but need to be ensure that they’re eating enough protein and vitamins B12, iron, and zinc, according to Allen. Also, be sure to consume plenty of whole foods (i.e., nutrient-dense foods that aren’t made in a lab) and keep a balance of carbs and protein at each meal and snack.
“If you’re making a pot of soup, add a can of beans,” Allen says.
2. Get enough fiber and probiotic.
A majority of the immune system exists in the gut, which is why you need good bacteria in the intestines.
“Foods that are rich in fiber and probiotics — like fermented vegetables — in a mostly plant-based meal plan can help support the growth of healthy gut bacteria,” Zarana Parekh, RDN, a nutrition advisor for Sovereign Laboratories, says.
The better your gut health is, the better you will feel, so opt for extra kimchi when you can (and also just add more whole grains to your diet for both protein and fiber).
3. Load up on omega-3s.
Some of the most anti-inflammatory foods are high in healthy fats, such as omega-3s, which nourish the cells. Allen suggests eating fatty fish like salmon (especially if you’re a vegetarian), since it's high in protein. Walnuts, which are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, are a great snack choice, too.
4. Add some color to your plate.
Typically, a vegetable's color tells you what kind of vitamins and antioxidants you're getting. Green and dark green vegetables have more iron, and red and yellow veggies usually contain more vitamin C. The point? You want a lot of color on your plate to ensure you're getting a diverse amount of vitamins in your diet.
“Focusing on nutrient density can help support a healthy inflammation response and keep the stress on the body at a lower level,” Morgan says.
5. Keep track of how you feel in relation to your workouts and meals.
Especially if you have an autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis, which can cause joint pain and swelling, your training is going to be that much more challenging, Sofia Norton, RD, explains. You have to listen to your body and be mindful of how exercise and the foods you’re eating are affecting your symptoms.
“It would be useful to keep a journal where the athlete records their activities and food, to make a connection between activity, food, and symptoms,” Norton says.
That will help you look at the whole picture and come up with the best dietary and training plan for yourself.