What is this restrictive diet anyway? (estimated reading time 8 minutes)
I have lived with intestinal distress for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid memory of being in the hospital, in isolation, as a small child with very bad diarrhea; actually it’s a vivid olfactory memory. During my teen years, I didn’t like my Mom’s cooking so I drank large quantities of milk to fill up, and suffered badly from constipation; at the time, I thought breathing through the pushing would be good practice for giving birth (it wasn’t). As an adult, I swing between the two extremes, abbreviated in the SCD world as D and C, rarely settling into normal bathroom habits.
In 2005, my big sister was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I started doing some reading and Voila! Here was my problem. Yay! Everything fit. So I went to the doctor. Blood tests came out negative. I was so sure, and my family history pointed in that direction, so the doctor performed a duodenal biopsy. Nada, zip. Nothing. Colonoscopy, same thing, though the doctor removed two small polyps. Small bowel barium follow-through. Again, nothing. Had a follow-up colonoscopy two years ago, perfectly healthy colon.
For me, medical tests usually come back “normal,” though I feel anything but. Two areas that don’t come out normal are my weight, I’m obese, and my blood sugars, which are borderline diabetic. Everything else – including thyroid, free T4, iron, kidney and liver function, electrolytes – normal. But my bathroom experiences and inability to lose weight are anything but.
Did you know that they call an illness a syndrome when they don’t know what’s really going on? You’ve probably guessed by now, my diagnosis: IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
So I thought I’d try the gluten-free diet anyway. It worked a bit, but I started feeling worse. Luckily, someone on one of the forums suggested I try the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). The science fit and I’ve come a long way.
However, it has been a rough seven years. I was extremely faithful for the first year and a half. Then I was faced with the seven-day bounty that was an Alaskan Cruise and my number was up. It’s been a see-saw battle and since then, I’ve never succeeded in being 100% SCD compliant for more than a full month, maybe six weeks. Which is why I feel like a fraud talking about a diet I can’t stick to.
However, I still believe that the science is sound and the diet is a healthy one, especially for people with severe intestinal damage who have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, and of course, for people with Celiac disease. For someone like me, where the consequences of non-compliance are less severe, the diet is hard to stick to. During that first year and a half, I lost a lot of weight (since re-gained), ditched my depression (never fully came back), and re-gained my energy (so-so lately, depends on what I eat, duh!).
Many other diets can be successful too if they limit or remove prepared or pre-packaged food. The Paleo diet and Weston A Price Foundation’s Traditional Diet are two examples. If you eat only foods you have prepared yourself, or only whole fruits, vegetables and fresh meat, eggs or cheese, you can’t help but be healthier.
So here’s a bit of a primer about the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or SCD.
The official book for the SCD is Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet by Elaine Gottschall. If you’re at all serious about this diet, you should buy the book. It’s not well-written or well-organized, but all the information is there.
If you feel like clicking around to learn more about the SCD, here are a few links to get you started:
- a summary of the diet from the official SCD website;
- the Pecanbread website has information about using the SCD for children with autism; it discusses the strong brain gut connection;
- an excerpt from the book Breaking the Vicious Cycle (BTVC) about Autism and SCD.
- Chapter 1 from BTVC giving the history of Elaine Gottschall’s involvement with the SCD.
If you’re a reader, not a clicker, below is a brief summary of the theory and science behind the diet. Dr. Sidney Valentine Haas used the Specific Carbohydrate diet almost 100 years ago to treat Celiac disease. The diet is also used by people with severe digestive problems such as Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. It has recently proven helpful for children with autism, and the list of disorders that the SCD heals or helps continues to grow.
I believe very strongly in the the gut-brain connection. I feel that diets which heal digestion are also healing for psychological problems, though they are by no means the only answer.
In a Nutshell
The main thrust of the SCD is the elimination of all complex carbohydrates, including grains, sugars and starches, and allowing only simple, or specific carbohydrates. It is not a low carbohydrate diet.
The three most common simple carbs (monosaccharides) which are allowed are fructose, glucose and galactose. Anything other than a simple sugar needs enzymes to break down in your digestive tract and is therefore not allowed.
Anything with -ose at the end is a sugar, but if it’s not frutose, glucose or galactose, it’s not allowed on the SCD. Maltose, lactose and sucrose are examples of disaccharides, and are therefore right out. White table sugar and maple syrup contain sucrose=illegal. Honey has fructose and glucose=legal. Potatoes, corn and all grains are starch, and they too are just…don’t even think about it.
A diet mandating avoidance of complex carbs of course flies in the face of the currently accepted dietary standard that whole grains are healthier. Grains are in fact very difficult to digest and can make bad digestion worse. That is why I call my website Health Against the Grain. To maintain or improve my health, I am not only going grain-free, I am going against the grain of common wisdom, on many fronts.
More about the SCD: undigested carbohydrates make their way into the lower intestine, feeding the bad bacteria and yeast, creating excess acid and toxins, which cause dysbiosis and an imbalance in the gut flora. This leads to: a distended abdomen filled with intestines that are bloated, inflamed, gaseous, painful; diarrhea; constipation; cramping; autoimmune disorders; skin problems; lack of nutrient absorption; anemia; mental confusion and on and on.
The SCD works to slowly starve the bad bacteria and re-populate the intestines with good bacteria. The starving happens through the elimination of all complex carbs. All of them. That is where the difficulties come in. You can’t get away with just having a little bit of complex carbs. For the diet to be truly effective, to truly heal your intestines, you need to follow the diet fanatically. You may get some healing if you cheat, but the diet simply will not work if not followed 100%.
That is where some people fall off the wagon; guilty as charged. They are unable to maintain fanatical adherence to the diet. Or, many people are too daunted by the prospect of such a restrictive diet and never start it. But the gut doesn’t have a chance to heal if you keep eating foods that cause problems.
Re-population of good gut flora is done through the use of home-made yogurt which is high in probiotics. It has no lactose, unlike commercially-made yogurt which isn’t incubated long enough to digest all the lactose. Also, most commercial yogurts and probiotic supplements have bifidus bacteria, which though beneficial, can be opportunistic and take over the gut flora, crowding out the good bacteria. For this reason, bifidus bacteria are not allowed on the SCD.
Of course, if you are one of the lucky few with perfect digestion and optimum health, consider yourself fortunate. But if you ever find yourself sliding towards ill health, you might want to consider the SCD as a way back towards equilibrium and balance.
“Why don’t you just use a simple rule, eat mostly vegetables, mostly whole foods, and you’ll be fine.” That might be good for healthy people, but for people like us with compromised digestion, I feel very strongly that the SCD is the way to go. And as much as I struggle to stay on the diet, I keep trying. My food addictions keep getting in the way.
So, if you’re sitting on the fence about starting the SCD, do some research, think hard about whether you want optimal health, and when you’re ready, jump right in and make sure you get some support.
By the way, the picture on top of my home page is food that I served at my pre-teen daughter’s birthday party, and it’s all 100% SCD-legal. I’ll write about that in another post.
Getting Started with SCD
Buy the book Breaking the Vicious Cycle
Check out the official SCD Website
Read the instructions for starting the Intro Diet
Consult the SCD-legal/Illegal list of foods
Most important, get some support:
Please comment and share your thoughts and experiences, I want to hear from you. If you don’t see the comment box below, click on the bubble beside the title or under my name at the top of this article. Or follow Health Against the Grain on Facebook and comment there.