All About The Specific Carbohydrate Diet

  • Written By:Dr. Will Cole
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The wellness world has a lot to say about carbohydrates. Whether we should avoid them or eat them, and subsequently which ones are better than others, are all topics of conversation and endless debate. But no two people are the same and what works for one person doesn’t always work for the next.

In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I aim to discover the best way of eating for each individual. To do this, I look at the pros and cons of each diet in order to determine what will be most beneficial for my patient. One of these diets is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Yes, some carbohydrates are allowed! Let’s take a deeper look at this diet and learn why carbs are not entirely off limits.

What is a SCD?

Developed in the 1920s by pediatrician Dr. Sidney Haas as a treatment for celiac disease, it was made popular in 1987 by the mother of one of Haas’ patients who published the book Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health through Diet all about the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and how it helped her daughter.

The goal of this diet is to heal severe gut dysfunction in cases of Crohn’s disease, IBS, celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis by eliminating all grains and complex carbs that are believed to be more difficult to digest than others. This eliminates irritation from the undigested carbs that contribute to bacterial overgrowth, inflammation, and gut permeability.

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What’s allowed:

  • Honey
  • Unprocessed poultry, meat, seafood, shellfish, and eggs
  • Certain legumes (dried beans, split peas, raw cashews, lentils, all-natural peanut butter)
  • Certain cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, Colby, dry curd cottage cheese)
  • Homemade yogurt (fermented for at least 24 hours)
  • Vegetables (fresh and frozen)
  • Fruit (fresh, frozen, and dried with no added sugar)
  • Most nuts
  • Nut flours
  • Most oils
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Mustard
  • Cider or white vinegar

What to avoid:

  • Certain sweeteners (sugar, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, and maple syrup)
  • All grains
  • Seaweed
  • Canned and processed meats
  • Canola oil
  • Conventional mayonnaise
  • Starchy tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips)
  • Milk
  • Certain dairy products (sour cream, mild cheddar, cream, store-bought yogurt)
  • Candy
  • Chocolate
  • Certain legumes
  • Canned vegetables

Why It Can Work

There are limited studies looking directly at the benefits of a Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Most of the known benefits surrounding this diet is anecdotal with just a few studies showing improvement in symptoms from following this way of eating. However, through what we know in functional medicine we can conclude that eliminating or greatly limiting certain foods like grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar can benefit overall gut health.

1. Grains

For those with celiac disease, removing gluten-containing grains is a no brainer. But studies have shown that gluten can negatively affect and contribute to symptoms in those without gluten sensitivity. What a lot of people don't realize is that celiac disease is really the extreme end of a broader gluten-intolerance spectrum. You can be on the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum without having celiac disease, and that can result in gluten intolerance, or what doctors sometimes call non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

Additionally, gluten free grains contain other components that can damage your gut. For example, saponins are anti-nutrients that can damage your gut, leading to increased gut permeability, which can contribute to inflammation and chronic conditions.

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2. Legumes

Lectins are another type of protein found in grains and legumes and are highly indigestible by the body. Lectins can wreak havoc on your gut, leading to conditions like leaky gut syndrome.

3. Lactose

Many people don’t realize that lactose is actually a carbohydrate composed of two simple sugars, glucose and galactose. By eliminating high-lactose cheeses and dairy products in a SCD, you are effectively reducing your overall carbohydrate intake. Additionally, lactose intolerance, where an individual doesn’t make enough of the enzyme lactase to fully digest lactose, is one of the most common food allergies in America.

4. Sugar

Regardless of the type of sugar you eat, your body still recognizes it as sugar. An overload of sugar - whether as glucose from the breakdown of carbohydrates or an added sweetener - can lead to bacterial dysbiosis which can lead to inflammation and further gut dysfunction.

The Verdict

Again, while more studies need to be done, the SCD can be a good option for someone just starting out on their health journey due to the elimination of certain gut-irritating carbohydrates. However, as I have seen in my own clinic, a lot of people need additional support with more advanced food protocols better tailored to a person’s individual health case and labs.

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