*This paper was originally written in 2013 for my course work while earning my certificate in Clinical Herbalism with the school Naturally Healthy in Calhoun, LA. It reflects my research at that time.*
Dr. Sidney V. and Merrill P. Haas are credited with the development of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and biochemist Elaine Gottschall is credited with its popularization and modernization. Gottschall’s daughter suffered from colitis, and at age 5, the Gottschalls brought her to the Drs. Haas. The Drs. Haas had written a book entitled Management of Celiac Disease and had been treating people with digestion issues through diet. Dr. Gottschall’s daughter began a radical version of the Haas’ diet, and within 2 years was symptom free. Several years later the little girl returned to a normal diet and was still enjoying good health two decades later.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) is a grain-free, lactose-free and sucrose-free meal plan. It resembles the popular gluten-free diet, but is quite a bit more restrictive. According to Gottschall, people suffering of ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, diverticulitis, chronic diarrhea and even certain serious behaviour problems and mental issues such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, mental confusion, autism and bizarre behaviours could be healed through the SCD.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet is built on the premise that these diseases are caused by injuries to the digestive tract. In a nutshell, it is believed that undigested foods which remain in the colon can ferment. This fermentation upsets the delicate flora of the gut and produces a ripe environment for a buildup of microbes, whose waste is harmful to the system. This bacterial overgrowth can lead to bloating, gas and chronic diarrhea, which in turn causes injury to the small intestinal mucosa. Over time the microvilli which line the intestine can become damaged, and blunted. The body will then produce an excess of mucus to protect itself. This further complicates things by making carbohydrate absorption even more difficult….which brings us back to the beginning of the vicious cycle where those carbohydrates will sit in the digestive tract and further feed the offending microbes.
The result of this injury to the digestive tract is often serious digestive issues, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc. The effects may be even further reaching, however. A waste product of the microbes is D-lactic acid. It is thought that D-lactic acid and other toxic products from these bacteria can enter the brain and “poison” brain cells. It has been noted that many people suffering from Schizophrenia, for example, also have digestive issues. Although D-lactic acid can be managed with antibiotics, it is more effective to prevent its formation by cutting off the microbes’ energy source, thus starving it out. It was noticed that when patients suffering of both digestive and mental issues tried the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, the mental diseases actually began to clear up first, followed by the digestive problems.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet is a very restrictive meal plan. Gottschall states, “the strictness of this diet cannot be overemphasized nor should the difficulty of adhering to it be minimized…such infringements (allowing a taste of a forbidden food) will seriously delay recovery and it is unwise to undertake this regimen unless you are willing to follow it with fanatical adherence.” (Gottschall, p 50) The SCD absolutely prohibits sugar, molasses, fructose, corn syrup or any other processed sugar, canned fruits and vegetables, all grains, including rice, corn, wheat, spelt, and others, some legumes, starchy tubers like potatoes, yams and parsnips, seaweeds and seaweed by-products, canned and processed meats, milk and milk products containing lactose, bread, pasta, starchy foods, canola oil, commercial mayonnaise, chocolate, carob, margarine, commercial condiments, any products with FOS, and much more! Surprisingly this does leave some foods which are permitted. The SCD follower can consume unprocessed meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, honey , vegetables (fresh, frozen, raw or cooked), some legumes, unroasted cashews, peanuts in a shell, all-natural peanut butter, certain cheeses, homemade yogurt (fermented for at least 24 hours), certain fruits, some oils, tea, coffee, vinegars and juices with no additives. A complete list can be obtained in Gotschall’s book “Breaking the Vicious Cycle”.
Gottschall recommends trying it for one month. Improvement should be noticed by then. If so, she advises to continue for at least a year. Once the symptoms have completely disappeared, another year should be added on to ensure that the gut is healed. At this point, many people are able to live symptom free and enjoy a normal diet once again, although it is hoped that one would not return to a high-processed, high-sugar lifestyle.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet has mixed reviews. It is not an easy diet to follow. It is incredibly restrictive, and does not tolerate any cheating. It requires a good amount of thinking ahead, prepping and planning to be sure that nutritional needs are being met. Even with careful planning, Gottschall ascertains that the diet could leave a person lacking in certain nutrients. For this reason, she recommends supplementing with a multi-vitamin (starch, sugar and yeast free). For those living in the north or who don’t get outside much, vitamin D and vitamin A are recommended as well, preferably through a cod-liver or halibut oil. Special attention should be given to vitamin B12 and minerals, too. Gottschall recommends being followed by your doctor through lab tests to be sure deficiencies are dealt with promptly. She also cautions not to discontinue medications without your doctor’s approval, although they may need to be adjusted as your condition improves.
The SCD does not include any grains whatsoever. This could lead to problems because grains are an important source of fibre, minerals, and vitamins. It must be said, though, that the Specific Carbohydrate Diet is not a diet for everyone. It is specifically tailored to people who have digestion issues and whose gut is damaged through the ingestion of certain foods, of which grains is one of them. The same applies to sugars. The body does need sugar; there’s no question of that. However if one’s body is weakened and damaged through the eating of a certain kind of sugar (such as lactose, or disaccharides), eliminating it would have more pros than cons. As Gottschall outlines in her book, no food should be ingested that the body cannot properly digest. The Specific Carbohydrate Diet is not meant to be a lifelong therapeutic diet. It is meant to give the sick body a break from offending foods so that healing can take place and a normal lifestyle can resume. It is not a diet for everyone. It should be seen as an emergency measure, and not as a weight loss fad.
From a Biblical perspective, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet seems to fall into a neutral zone. The SCD does not make claims or promises of any kind and does not hail itself as a healing force. Although SC Dieters would miss out on the blessings of bread and milk, this would only be temporary. After healing has taken place, one would be free once again to partake in the full range of wonderful and nutritious foods God has provided us.
I would not recommend the Specific Carbohydrate Diet to the average person. The difficulty in following the diet correctly, coupled with the potential for nutritional deficiencies, would be cause enough for me to hesitate. However desperate times call for desperate measures. Should my client suffer from a serious digestive disease and not have seen improvement from anywhere else, I would certainly suggest the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. I would be very careful to explain the ins and outs of the diet in detail and urge them to be closely followed to keep an eye on vitamin and mineral levels. Once the symptoms had cleared, and the specified amount of time passed, I would encourage them to try a balanced diet low in sugar, processed foods, and moderate in grains to see how their body tolerates it.
Gottschall B.A., M.Sc., Elaine, Breaking the Vicious Cycle, Kirkton Press, Baltimore ON, 1999
Clinical herbalist. Mother. Teacher. Ever student.