Rediscover the Joy of Eating: How a Diet is Helping Thousands Heal

Guest blog by Jenny Lass

What would you do if the comfort food you grew up loving suddenly made you sick? This is what the 70 million Americans with digestive disorders experience, and many don't find the relief they need through traditional medical interventions. The treatment options for gastrointestinal patients usually involve expensive medications with daunting side effects, such as bone thinning, rashes, night sweats and facial swelling. 

Although drug treatment for intestinal conditions is sometimes warranted, what happens when the drugs don't work or the side effects seem worse than the disease? Steroids, a common treatment for many digestive disorders, become less effective each time they're used, so patients are left with little recourse if their symptoms return. Fortunately, there are other options, such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), which has been a welcome option for thousands of people around the world seeking long-term help.

The SCD was developed over 50 years ago by prominent New York pediatrician Dr. Sydney Haas and made famous by Canadian nutrition scientist Elaine Gottschall. It eliminates complex carbohydrates and disaccharides so food is easier to digest - that means no grains, starches or refined sugars. The SCD was actually one of the earliest treatments for celiac disease, which is defined as an autoimmune disorder that leads to intestinal damage when patients eat gluten. 

The SCD got somewhat lost in the gluten-free hype, but many celiacs turn to it if the gluten-free diet doesn't work for them. In fact, the gluten-free diet can take up to six months to kick in, whereas many SCDers find relief within the first week. A 2004 physician-run survey found that approximately 80% of people who try the SCD are helped by it, including those with ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Even the autistic community has latched on to the SCD, which is sometimes more effective than the gluten-free casein-free diet.

However, the SCD is not meant to replace drugs or doctors - it's integrative. It can help reduce medication dosages, help medications work better, eliminate medications sooner or even help patients avoid medications altogether. SCDers are encouraged to seek supervision by physicians or dietitians, but they are often left to fend for themselves when the health care professionals the consult aren't aware of the diet. A lack of funding for this non-drug-based treatment has also limited the amount of research that can be done to fully understand the benefits of the SCD. The Elaine and Herbert Gottschall Foundation is finally starting to accumulate funds to support the promotion and further study of this diet.

Another challenge facing the SCD is its elimination of some of the foods we're used to eating - a prospect that might seem unappetizing at first. But a quick review of the SCD's innovative techniques and recipes shows that it is full of your old favorites, made differently. There's the art of eating virtually lactose-free dairy products. Old-aged cheeses, such as parmesan, brick, gouda, havarti, Swiss and cheddar, are naturally lactose-free due to their long fermentation time. The same principle applies to homemade lactose-free yogurt - 24-hour fermentation allows the bacterial culture to break down the lactose, leaving easy-to-digest yogurt that can be used for cheesecake, cream cheese, ice cream and breads. Being able to eat dairy is not only satisfying to the palate, but also essential for fighting low bone density, a condition that often accompanies digestive diseases.

One of the other keys to the SCD's success is its creativity in the absence of all grains. Spaghetti squash, zucchini, egg, Enoki mushrooms and squid replace crepes and noodles, and cholesterol-lowering, vitamin-packed almond flour produces authentic-tasting baked goods that are healthy and easy to make. The SCD provides the simplest gluten-free baking method on the market and uses easy-to-find ingredients. Aside from almond flour, which can be found in the bulk section of many grocery stores, bulk food stores, health food stores or online, your SCD baked-good shopping list might be as minimal as honey, butter, baking soda, spices and fruit. 

Although some may balk at the idea of eliminating a long-standing staple such as grains, it's important to note that there's nothing magic in pasta and cereal - you can find the nutrients in grains in many other foods. Squash is packed with vitamins A, B, C and folate, and almond flour is high in fiber. Eggs are one of the few foods containing naturally occurring vitamin D and red meat is one of best sources of dietary iron. 

The SCD's reliance on almond flour also takes full advantage of the "good fat" in nuts. Research shows that the fat in almonds actually helps instead of hinders weight loss because it satisfies hunger and tends to prevent unhealthy or excessive snacking. And we tend to forget that fat is an important part of a healthy diet. For example, we need fat to metabolize fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D and E, and fat helps with temperature regulation, hormone production, and the development of the brain and nervous system.

All controversy aside, the SCD warrants further investigation. Medical journals are slowly accumulating case studies that document how this diet that got lost in the shuffle is helping people with digestive diseases who have run out of options or are searching for complementary solutions.