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Specific Carbohydrate Diet: Diet Review

Specific Carbohydrate Diet: How It Works

Yet unproven by scientific studies, the effectiveness of this diet is promoted by the testimonials from people who claim their symptoms improved and their disease went into remission.  

In theory, the benefits of the SCD occur at the cellular level controlling bacteria. The premise is that unrefined carbs alter bacteria in the gut; by removing offending carbs, it changes the metabolism of the bacteria that live in the gut and reduces inflammation.  

Further, Gottschall believed the intestines of patients with GI disorders are damaged and missing enzymes to break down complex sugars and starches, which provide more food for bacteria to feed upon. 

Specific carbs that are allowed require minimal digestion, are well absorbed, and leave virtually nothing for bacteria to feed on. The diet encourages eating foods that contain "good" bacteria, such as homemade yogurt, on a daily basis to replenish healthy bacteria in the gut.  

“Gut bacteria are sensitive to what you eat, but it is a very complicated phenomenon and whether or not the Specific Carb Diet is anti-inflammatory and beneficial remains unknown,” says Joel Mason, MD, associate professor of medicine, nutrition, and gastroenterology at Tufts University in Boston.

It appears to work for some people and not others, says Sandquist. 

Specific Carbohydrate Diet: Experts' Views

Despite the fact that there is little scientific evidence for the SCD, it is hard to ignore the anecdotal praises for the plan. "We don’t have perfect treatments for these GI diseases, and we should be open to unconventional therapies that are worthy of consideration [and] proceed cautiously and with careful medical supervision," Mason says. 

Anecdotal doesn’t necessarily mean effective. "There can be a placebo effect, or because these diseases are cyclic, there may be improvements not related to the diet," Mason says.  

And when you eliminate so many foods, Sandquist says, it makes it hard to pinpoint culprit foods causing problems.

Mason also has other concerns. “It is very difficult to stick to this diet because it is so restrictive," he says. "Strict adherence to it could result in weight loss from too few calories, and certain patients, like those with IBD, who tend to already be underweight can’t risk additional weight loss."

Calories along with protein are essential to help maintain the immune system, stay healthy, and be able to heal, Sandquist says.

Another concern is the nutritional inadequacy of the diet.  Eliminating whole food groups from the diet sets up the dieter for potential nutrient deficiencies. “When you don’t eat grains you miss out on B vitamins, fiber, and iron.  Eliminating dairy pulls out the best source of calcium and vitamin D along with potassium," Sandquist says. 

On the positive side, there can be a psychological benefit for adults who are proactive and empowered by taking charge of their disease with the diet. 

However, when it comes to children, it could be an emotional burden and an even greater nutritional concern.

“Children and teens have extraordinary nutritional needs to support growth and to combat their disease. Therefore, the additional restrictions of this diet could be overwhelming emotionally and physically," says Mason, who does not recommend the SCD diet for children.

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