The Specific Carbohydrate Diet was created by Dr. Sidney V. Haas as a treatment for IBD and celiac disease.
The diet was later publicized by biochemist Elaine Gottschall, the mother of one of Dr. Haas’ patients, in the 1987 book: Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet. There is a large amount of anecdotal evidence online that the specific carbohydrate diet is effective as a treatment for gastrointestinal diseases. However, the research conducted in not typically in support of these claims. Without rigorous testing, it is hard to determine if the benefits associated by individuals are due to the changes in diet, the placebo effect, or simply the cyclical nature of Crohn’s disease.
NOTE: Before making any dramatic changes to your diet, it is important to discuss the changes with your doctor and/or a dietician. Diet changes are serious and can have unintended consequences, particularly when adopted alongside IBD which may already cause poor absorption of nutrients.
What is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet?
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet asserts that the digestive tract may not be able to optimally digest all foods. Foods that are improperly digested, in continues, cause bacterial growth and yeast growth, which in turn increase the amount of acid in the GI tract, irritating the small intestine. Supposedly, the diet is a way to break free of this cycle.
At a high-level, is is possible to think of the approved foods for the Specific Carbohydrate Diet as being grain-free, starch-free, sugar-free, and unprocessed. In practice, this means that only chemically-simple carbohydrates are to be consumed. Broadly speaking, there are three types of carbohydrates, only one of which is allowed for consumption in the Specific Carbohydrate Diet:
- Allowed on the SCD
- The most simple form of sugar including glucose and fructose
- Not allowed on the SCD
- Examples include lactose (milk sugar) and sucrose (table sugar)
- Not allowed on the SCD
- Examples include starches like potatoes, rice, and wheat.
A full list of approved and unapproved foods can be found here. If it sounds restrictive, it is. Researchers have noted that maintaining the diet can be challenging both psychologically AND financially as the diet doesn’t even allow for canned versions of vegetables that may have added sugar.
With this restrictive of a diet, nutritional worries are quite valid. Removing grains from the diet makes it harder to get B vitamins, fiber, and iron. And, not eating dairy may lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D.
Does the Specific Carbohydrate Diet Work?
There does not seem to be any research studies that show that beginning the Specific Carbohydrate Diet will lead to Crohn’s disease remission. In fact, a review published in 2013 noted:
“There are no formal published studies on the benefits of the [Specific Carbohydrate Diet] SCD … in the management or prevention of IBD.”
Complicating the research is the difficulties associated with measuring bacterial growth in the intestine. And, the mechanism that turns this overgrowth into intestinal inflammation is still unclear.
Not only that, but a study on people with ulcerative colitis who ate barley, a forbidden food on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, found that the high fiber diet caused improvement of bowel symptoms.
Because of these and other findings, the researchers who performed the review above note that individuals are able to identify specific foods that are triggers for increased disease activity. Keeping food diaries and tracking symptoms may help people identify personal foods to avoid.