The Specific Carbohydrate Diet

Some Find the SCD Restrictive, But Others Find That It Is Helpful

Rice is one of the foods that is prohibited on the specific carbohydrate diet. Image © Amber J Tresca

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) is an eating plan described in the book The Management of Celiac Disease, by Doctors Sydney Valentine Haas and Merrill P. Haas. Dr. Sydney Haas, a pediatrician, took an interest in the diet of his patients who were diagnosed with celiac disease. He noted certain carbohydrates were better tolerated by these patients than others and went on to develop the SCD as a treatment for celiac disease. A diet free of gluten is currently the treatment for celiac disease.

Elaine Gottschall, desperate for a treatment for her daughter who had treatment-unresponsive ulcerative colitis, was put in touch with Dr. Haas. Gottschall started her daughter on the SCD and the girl's symptoms improved. Gottschall, a biochemist and cell biologist, was then inspired to research the diet more deeply. She went on to write Breaking The Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet, which details the specifics of the SCD.

The Helpfulness of the SCD for IBD

The short answer is that we don't know if the SCD is helpful in treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Some people have found that SCD is helpful for their IBD symptoms, but the diet can be difficult to follow because it is restrictive and requires patience and dedication. The SCD is not endorsed by either patient advocacy groups or professional medical societies for the treatment or management of IBD. However, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation does say that while the diet will not reduce inflammation, trying it will probably not be harmful.

The Premise Behind the SCD

In the SCD, grains, lactose, and sugar are not allowed. The main premise is to eliminate all complex carbohydrates from the diet. Only simple carbohydrates are allowed. The theory is that complex carbohydrates are food for the harmful bacteria in the gut. If complex carbohydrates are avoided, these bacteria are starved, and they will not be able to multiply and continue causing gastrointestinal symptoms.

In addition to the effect on bacteria, complex carbohydrates are difficult to digest. Any undigested carbohydrates are thought to contribute to the creation of toxins in the gut. The toxins, it is theorized, can further contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms and the ongoing incomplete digestion of carbohydrates.

Foods That Are Allowed/Disallowed on the SCD

The SCD is fairly restrictive, and some people find it difficult to follow because it is so different than a standard Western diet. It is recommended that the eating plan is followed for at least one year before non-SCD foods are added back into the diet. Foods such as nuts, aged cheeses, fish, beef, and unsweetened juices are allowed. Examples of foods that are not allowed include sugars, oats, pasta, potatoes, rice, sugar substitutes, and wheat.

A Word from Verywell

The SCD is rigid, which makes it challenging to follow for any prolonged length of time. However, some people do report improvement in their symptoms after following it. At this time there is no conclusive evidence as to why some people may feel better using this diet. The SCD will not reduce inflammation, nor will it cure IBD, but it is not considered to be harmful. Scientists currently think that there may be hundreds of types of IBD, which could be one reason why some people may find symptom relief by altering their diet, and other people do not.

People with IBD should always check with a physician and/or a dietician before making diet changes, and especially before removing entire food groups from the diet. It is critical that people with IBD get all the vitamins and minerals the body needs, and cutting out entire food groups can lead to deficiencies, which is already a problem for people with IBD.

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