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Specific Carbohydrate Diet: Diet Review

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WebMD Expert Column

The Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) is a very restrictive, unconventional diet plan that severely limits most carbs.

It is based on the theory that by eliminating most carbs (primarily grains, starches, dairy, and sugars) and allowing only specific carbs that require minimal digestion, it can reduce inflammation and make eating enjoyable for people with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. 

People with various GI disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), ulcerative colitis (UC), Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease, can have difficulty dealing with food and side effects from medications and food intolerances.

Removing the carbs that are difficult to digest and cause inflammation in the gut is the rationale of the diet, popularized by the late biochemist and author Elaine Gottschall, MSc, in her book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet. Gottschall modeled the SCD based on the work of Sidney Haas, MD, to treat her then 5-year-old daughter, who had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.

Specific Carbohydrate Diet: What You Can Eat

This can be a very challenging diet to follow because there are a limited number of foods allowed. The SCD eliminates many of the foods in a typical American diet, including all simple sugars, grains, starches, most dairy, and more. 

Not only is the SCD difficult to follow, it may also be risky for your health. When you eliminate whole food groups like dairy and grains, you significantly reduce the nutritional quality of the diet, which may result in nutritional deficiencies. 

Multivitamins and minerals can fill in the gaps, but they fall short when compared to the nutritional goodness of foods. “You can’t get in a pill all the phytochemicals, fiber, and synergy (foods working together) that foods provide.  Supplements are designed to supplement the diet, not replace nutritious foods,” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Dee Sandquist, MS, RD.

You need to carefully read food labels to select foods allowed on the SCD and be cautious when eating out. 

The following foods are allowed in the diet:

  • Vegetables (except canned)
  • Legumes (except the ones noted below)
  • Unprocessed meats, poultry, fish, and eggs
  • Natural cheeses (except those listed below)
  • Homemade yogurt fermented at least 24 hours
  • Most fruits and juices without additives
  • Nuts, peanuts in the shell, natural peanut butter
  • Oils: olive, coconut, soybean, and corn
  • Weak tea and coffee
  • Unflavored gelatin
  • Mustard and vinegar
  • Saccharin

Foods and ingredients not allowed on the SCD include:

  • Sugars: lactose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, molasses, maltose, isomaltose, fructooligosaccharides, and any processed sugar
  • All canned vegetables
  • All grains: anything made from corn, wheat, wheat germ, barley, oats, rye, rice, buckwheat, soy, spelt, and amaranth
  • Some legumes: chickpeas, bean sprouts, soybeans, mung beans, fava beans, and garbanzo beans
  • Starchy vegetables: potatoes, yam, parsnips, seaweed products, agar, and carrageenan
  • Canned and processed meats
  • Dairy: milk, milk products, ice cream, whey powder, commercial yogurt, heavy cream, buttermilk, sour cream, and the following cheeses: ricotta, mozzarella, cottage cheese, cream cheese, feta, processed cheeses, and cheese spreads
  • Canola oil, commercial mayonnaise, commercial ketchup, margarine, baking powder, and balsamic vinegar
  • Candy, chocolate, carob

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