Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) for IBS

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet was originally designed as a treatment for celiac disease but was then expanded to treat a variety of other disorders. Although not necessarily intended as a treatment for IBS, its focus on gut bacteria lends itself to the question as to whether the diet might be an option for people who have IBS. This overview of the diet can help you to make an informed decision as to whether it presents a viable option for you.

Berries and cherries
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The Specific Carbohydrate Diet was originally designed by Drs. Sydney and Merrill Haas based on their clinical work with patients who were diagnosed with celiac disease. The diet involves the restriction of specific types of sugars and starches. The diet garnered increased attention with the publication of Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet by Elaine Gottschall, B.A., M.Sc. In her book, Gottschall states that the diet can benefit people with the following health problems:

Gottschall also discusses the benefits of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for children who have autism, noting that intestinal difficulties are frequently associated with an autism diagnosis. In her book, she presents anecdotal evidence that children who are placed on the diet show improvement in their behavioral symptoms; such improvement is noted even before their digestive symptoms improve.

The theory behind the diet is that the restriction of specific carbohydrates resolves the intestinal dysbiosis that is thought to be the underlying cause of these health conditions. According to Gottschall, it is thought that toxins released by the fermentation of these carbohydrates damage the cells lining the intestines. It is also thought that eliminating these carbohydrates over time reduces the population of troublesome intestinal microbes.

The Diet

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet involves strict restriction of many common foods, while still offering a balanced, nutritious daily diet. It is recommended that the diet be followed strictly for one month and should only be continued if symptom improvement is noted after the first month. Gottschall claims that many disorders can be "cured" if the diet is followed strictly for one year. She notes that the diet should be continued for approximately one year after symptoms resolve.

The Book

Breaking the Vicious Cycle outlines the theory behind the diet, discusses its application to various health disorders and provides lists of foods that are "allowed" and "not permitted" on the diet. Half of the book is dedicated to a variety of recipes. Although the book might serve to help someone to follow the diet, you might find it to be quite disorganized, with a disturbing lack of solid research to back up Gottschall's claims. Although she provides some limited research regarding the relationship between gut bacteria and health problems, she does not provide research regarding the effectiveness of the diet itself. Instead, she offers dramatic anecdotes from parents and others as to how the diet has changed their lives.

Does the Diet Have Research Support?

Considering the enthusiasm of proponents of the diet, we found it astonishing how few studies, if any, have been conducted as to its effectiveness. We were not able to find a single study on the use of the diet for IBS.

A Word From Verywell

It is hard to completely disregard anecdotal reports, but it is also hard to endorse a diet without any controlled research studies. Drs. Haas were pioneers in recognizing the contribution of gut dysbiosis to various health problems, as well as noting the effect of diet on the health of the gut flora. Unfortunately, the fact that their theories were based on their clinical experience rather than well-designed research studies may be behind the lack of acceptance of the diet by traditional medical practitioners.

It was interesting to me the overlap of the theory behind the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and that of the low-FODMAP diet. The sharp contrast is that the low-FODMAP diet is based solidly on research in terms of how FODMAP carbohydrates exacerbate symptoms in people who have IBS. If you are considering taking a nutritional approach to addressing your IBS symptoms, your better choice may well be the low-FODMAP diet.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Gottshall, E. (2012) Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet. Canada: The Kirkton Press.

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.