What is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet?

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK/CHAMPJA

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or SCD, is a dietary approach that may be beneficial for those suffering from inflammatory digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, diverticulitis and more. It was popularized by Elaine Gottschall in her 1994 book, “Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet.” Gottschall, a biochemist, formalized the SCD after her young daughter was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis, and her book was based on previous theories and hypotheses including:

  • The 1991 food intolerance hypothesis set forth by Dr. J.O. Hunter
  • The 1951 Management of Celiac Disease monograph by Dr. Sidney V. and Dr. Merrill P. Haas
  • The 1888 published report On the Celiac Affection by Dr. Samuel Gee

The idea behind the SCD diet is that often those with certain digestive disorders have a damaged intestinal lining and therefore are not able to secrete enough digestive enzymes or have enough healthy absorptive surface area for proper digestion. SCD removes complex carbohydrates from the diet and only allows simple-to-digest carbohydrates, called monosaccharides.  Acceptable foods include fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits, unprocessed meat and fish, homemade 24-hour yogurt and low-lactose cheeses such as dry-curd cottage cheese, healthy oils, honey, eggs, nuts and some legumes. The diet avoids processed meats and fish, starchy vegetables like potatoes, dried and canned fruits, all grains, high-lactose dairy, food preservatives, some legumes and most sweeteners.

The research on SCD is just starting to emerge, and most of the studies that have been done to date have a very small sample size, are prospective, and not placebo-controlled or blinded. More research is necessary to gauge the effectiveness of SCD, but limited research suggests that benefits of this diet may include:

  • Bacterial balance
  • Improved nutrient absorption
  • Reduced intestinal inflammation
  • Less intestinal permeability (leaky gut)

As with any dietary approach, those suffering from inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders should consult with their doctor before trying the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. If approved, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to trial the SCD for at least one month. If there is no improvement, then it probably won’t work for you. Most commit to this diet for at least one year, but the length of the diet is based on speed of recovery.

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Erin Peisach
Erin Peisach, RDN, CLT, is a dietitian based in San Diego and owner of Nutrition by Erin, a virtual practice specializing in gut health where she also blogs. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.