Eileen Laird of Phoenix Helix … You’ve Been Stalked!

Eileen Laird Portrait Tall

We’re pretty excited to tell you about our newest “you’ve been stalked” victim because not only has she contributed some fantastic recipes to Stalkerville, she is also our new Autoimmune Ambassador, making sure the recipes in our autoimmune gallery match the paleo autoimmune protocol (AIP).   Eileen Laird became an expert on the AIP when she used it to successfully treat her rheumatoid arthritis, reducing her symptoms by 95%, without the use of steroids, immunosuppressant or biologic medication.

She’s the writer/photographer behind the blog, Phoenix Helix, which sounds unusual, but was chosen very carefully.  The Phoenix represents rising from the ashes, and the Helix represents the magic of epigenetics – our ability to change the expression of our genes and therefore our health.  Both are strong symbols of hope for anyone with autoimmune disease.  Through her blog, she offers recipes, research and inspiration for healing.  When she’s not writing her blog or chow-stalking, she’s soothing people’s pain through her day job of bodywork (that’s a fancy word for specialized medical massage).  On the weekends, she tests recipes, laughs with her husband, and hikes the gorgeous Appalachian Mountains (unless it’s winter; then you can find her happily snuggled up with a good book, in front of the woodstove.)

So continue reading to learn more about Eileen’s incredible healing and our new partner in providing those following the paleo autoimmune protocol with many delicious, fully vetted recipes for their own journey toward healing.

Eileen Laird OutdoorsEileen, when and why did you start following a paleo diet?

I was in crisis.  We all have moments in life when our world turns upside down.  For me, it was the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in 2012.  I honestly didn’t know how I could make it through each day.  I was living with excruciating pain and increasing disability, and the conventional medical treatment frightened me as much as the disease.  Intuitively, I knew autoimmunity was related to diet, and internet searches led me to paleo.  At first it seemed crazy – give up grains? Eat more meat?  But I was willing to try anything.  Thankfully, it worked.

What are the biggest benefits of doing so?

Eliminating pain and reclaiming my life.

What exactly is Rheumatoid Arthritis and how is it different from other types of arthritis?

Arthritis simply means inflammation of the joint.  The most common type is osteoarthritis, which is usually caused by “wear and tear” over the years and is diagnosed later in life.  Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, where the body attacks the linings of the joints, and the inflammation harms the entire body.  Diagnosis is most common between the ages of 35-45, and onset is often very rapid.  The two types of arthritis are very different from each other, so I actually wish they had different names.  Not surprisingly, rheumatoid is the scary kind.

I’ll give you a snapshot of my life when my RA was at its worst (pre-paleo).  I was 43 years old, but when I got up in the morning, I felt about 90.  My whole body hurt to move, and that stiffness would last for at least 3 hours, if not the entire day.  Then, every evening like clockwork, one of my joints would flare, and I never knew which one it would be. I just knew it would be excruciatingly painful and that joint would be immobilized before I went to bed that night.  For example, Thursday a flare would put my shoulder in a sling, Friday my knee could no longer support my weight, Saturday my jaw would freeze so I couldn’t open it to eat, Saturday my wrist would be put in a brace, etc.  Throughout this whole process, my hands and feet were constantly inflamed.  It hurt to walk, to do dishes, to do anything.  I quickly went from a healthy and physically active woman to one who was quickly growing disabled.  That’s the power of rheumatoid.  Remembering all of this brings tears to my eyes.  I’m so glad it’s now my past, rather than my present.

What does your version of “paleo” look like?

Stricter than most, and not as strict as some.  Through the autoimmune protocol, I learned very specifically what foods my body can and cannot tolerate.  For me, that means no processed foods, no refined sugars, no refined oils, no grains, no legumes, no dairy (except ghee), no nightshades, and limited nuts/seeds.  I was able to reintroduce eggs successfully, so I don’t limit those.  I also believe in paleo treats – not as a staple of the diet, but as a way to make a lifelong diet both sustainable and enjoyable.  My favorite indulgence is homemade flavor-infused chocolates.

For those that are unfamiliar, can you tell us a little more about AIP?

The AIP excludes all the normal paleo no-nos (grains, legumes, soy, processed food, refined oils and refined sugars) and it also temporarily excludes the most common food intolerances: dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds and nightshades.  When you first see the list of foods excluded on the autoimmune protocol, you think, “What on earth will I eat?!”  That’s why Chowstalker’s autoimmune gallery is so great.  It’s reassuring to see that there’s still plenty of delicious food on the table.  It’s also helpful to remember that the AIP is an elimination diet.  That means it’s designed to be temporary, and its goal is to detect your unique food intolerances through a careful reintroduction process.  You watch how your body responds to each food, and you learn the personalized paleo diet that will best help you heal, and it will look a little different from everyone else’s.

Do FODMAPs fit into the autoimmune protocol?

FODMAPs are specific carbohydrates that some people have trouble digesting.  However, it’s not a consideration in the autoimmune protocol.  Rather, it’s a troubleshooting step you can take later on, if the AIP doesn’t give you complete results.  The Paleo Mom has a great article about FODMAPS if you want to learn more.  And if you want to do AIP and a low-FODMAP diet at the same time, Gutsy by Nature wrote a good summary of how to do that.

You’ve recently started an AIP Recipe Roundtable. Tell us about that.

Because so many food groups are restricted on the AIP, it’s easy to get in a rut of eating the same thing night after night, and that’s a recipe for disaster.  Boredom leads to binging.  So, I decided to start a link-up, where bloggers can share AIP-friendly recipes every week.  Trying to find them on your own is very time-consuming, because 99% of paleo bloggers don’t have an autoimmune disease and therefore don’t cook with the protocol in mind.  However, that doesn’t mean some of their recipes aren’t AIP-friendly.  I’ve been on a treasure hunt to find them, and I’ve been sharing them in an AIP recipe group that I help moderate on Facebook. But I wanted to expand the AIP network further, so I started the Roundtable and have been inviting bloggers to link-up directly.  My hope is twofold: (1) to create an ongoing recipe resource for the AIP community, and (2) to raise awareness about the protocol and hope regular paleo bloggers take pity on us and develop recipes for the AIP more often.

Is cooking something you enjoyed prior to paleo? Do you enjoy it now or do it because it’s necessary?

When I was 10 years old, my mother returned to nursing the 3pm-11pm shift, and I took over cooking dinner for my family.  She was an excellent teacher. For the first year, she did all the prep and wrote out all the instructions, so when I came home from school, it was very easy to do the rest.  By age 12 or 13, I was doing all the prep and cooking, and eventually started choosing recipes and adapting them to my tastes.  I’m really grateful for that experience. When I left home, I was unique among my friends. Most of their cooking skills started and ended at the toaster and microwave oven.

One of my first jobs out of college was teaching people with developmental disabilities how to cook.  I even wrote a cookbook that helped them learn to cook independently.  When I was writing it, I followed my mother’s example.  I wrote down every single step, from washing hands, to peeling an onion before slicing it, and I would hand them the recipe and step out of the kitchen.  If they got stuck, I would come in and write down the missing instruction.

Eventually, I had a book of recipes that eliminated the need for me to be there at all.  I think cooking is a gift, and I love bestowing that gift on others.

Do you adhere to a strict AIP diet? What would a typical day’s worth of meals look like? Any favorite recipes?

I never cheat on my personalized paleo.  You know those experiments where they shock animals to teach them certain behaviors?  Well, I feel like my body has put me through that kind of an experiment.  If I eat nightshades, for example, I’ll wake up feeling like a 90 year-old woman the next day, and it will be weeks before I return to feeling normal.  No food is worth that to me, so I strictly adhere to my personalized AIP diet, which I described earlier as my version of paleo.

I usually start my day with a big bowl of homemade chicken soup.  For lunch, I enjoy a version of Mark Sisson’s big-ass salad (modified for the AIP).  Dinner will often be one of the recipes I’ve featured on my blog, like roast pork with onion apple gravy.  I love making large batches of food, so I can enjoy leftovers.  For snacks, I like simple things, like avocados, roasted butternut squash, and Melissa Joulwan’s caramelized coconut chips.  And because I’m trying to heal autoimmunity, I focus heavily on healing foods in my diet, which means I eat organ meat and seafood every week, and bone broth and fermented foods every day.

But what about coffee??

Too much coffee is hard on the digestive tract and can also increase inflammation in the body.  So, the question is, can you stop at one cup?  If the idea of giving up coffee is painful (it sure would be at Stalkerville!), I think you can take the autoimmune protocol in stages.  Do the food eliminations first and once you’re comfortable with those, tackle the coffee habit.

Autoimmune Ambassador BadgeYou’ve recently cleaned-up our autoimmune category. What are the main mistakes people make when labeling a recipe as AIP compliant?

I actually saw mistakes in every category, so I think a lot of bloggers aren’t familiar with the protocol.  Nightshades were probably the most common mistake, because it’s a funny name and most people don’t know what it means, and also because they’re flavorful ingredients that are added to 90% of paleo recipes.  Here’s a quick list: tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, hot peppers, pimentos, goji berries, and red pepper spices (cayenne, chili powder, curry powder, etc.)  If a recipe includes any one of those, it’s not AIP.


It’s obvious that Eileen is passionate about helping people and has a wealth of experience to share.  Over the past several days, Eileen has vetted every single recipe in our autoimmune category and hunted down dozens of others that were safe to include.  Along with her AIP recipe link-up, anyone trying to follow the AIP should have plenty of recipes to help them stay on track.

I’m really proud of the (Chowstalker AIP) gallery; it shows that AIP food can varied and delicious!
Eileen Laird: Autoimmune Ambassador

We’re proud too and so grateful for our new partnership with Eileen to keep this resource dependable and more valuable to the AIP community.

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