The Specific Carbohydrate Diet: A Functional Medicine Perspective
If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that every health expert has a different perspective on carbohydrates. Some say they’re critical nutrients that are necessary for energy production and hormone balance and others say that we’d be better off avoiding this macronutrient completely.
At my functional medicine clinic, I see patients all the time that are confused about carbs. And I get it! It can be confusing, especially when you have all different types of health experts giving your contradicting advice. How do you separate fact from fiction?
Answering this question is actually easier than you think. Because here’s the thing that makes all the endless debating about carbs pointless: There’s no one diet that’s right for everyone.
Yes, I said it! Carbs are not off-limits. In fact, the amount of carbohydrates you should eat depends on your genetics, activity level, and pre-existing conditions, and health issues.
To show you exactly what you mean, in this article I’ll be diving into the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), a diet that allows you some carbohydrates - just from certain sources.
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The Specific Carbohydrate Diet: The Basics
The SCD was created in the early 1900s by a physician named Dr. Sidney Haas. Interestingly, it was first created as a treatment of Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune reaction to the protein gluten, found in grains like wheat. Everything about the SCD is centered around healing the gut, including leaky gut and dysbiosis caused by Celiac disease. Essentially, this diet helps you eliminate “specific” carbs that are known to cause bacterial overgrowths, inflammation, and increased gut permeability but doesn’t require you to eliminate all carbs. That way, you can still enjoy certain carbs while you heal your gut.
The Specific Carbohydrate Diet: The Food
Now, onto the most important question: What can you eat? The SCD allows you to eat the following major food groups:
- Homemade yogurt (fermented for at least 24 hours)
- Vegetables (fresh and frozen)
- Fruit (fresh, frozen, and dried with no added sugar)
- Most nuts
- Nut flours
- Most oils
- Cider or white vinegar
- Unprocessed poultry, meat, seafood, shellfish, and eggs
- Certain legumes (dried beans, split peas, raw cashews, lentils, all-natural peanut butter)
- Certain cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, Colby, dry curd cottage cheese)
That’s a lot of food, right? You’ll notice that there are some foods that are often eliminated on other healthy diets, like cheeses, legumes, and honey.
Foods to Avoid on the SCD
Research on the SCD is limited and most of what we know about the benefits of this diet is anecdotal or based on studies that have been done on specific food groups. That said, we know in functional medicine eliminating or greatly limiting certain foods like grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar — which are the main food groups you eliminate on the SCD — can benefit overall gut health. So while there are a lot of foods on the “yes” list when you’re on an SCD, there are still some food groups that are best avoided. These include:
Many of us grew up thinking that beans were healthy or even a “magical” food. But the truth is, legumes and beans contain a protein called lectin, which is known as an “antinutrient” because it blocks the absorption of other important nutrients. Lectin is also highly indigestible by the human body, so eating legumes can cause extreme digestive distress and exacerbate existing gut conditions. Because of this, the SCD removes legumes.
2. Grains (including gluten-free grains)
For those with celiac disease, removing gluten-containing grains is a no brainer. But the truth is, research has shown that gluten can negatively affect and contribute to symptoms in those without gluten sensitivity, too. (I think about gluten issues of a spectrum — celiac disease is on the extreme end and gluten intolerance is the mild end.) Gluten-free grains also contain components that can damage your gut. For example, saponins (which are found in chickpeas, peanuts, and beans) are anti-nutrients that can damage your gut, leading to increased gut permeability, which can contribute to inflammation and chronic conditions.
Many people don’t realize it but lactose is actually composed of two simple sugars, glucose and galactose. By eliminating high-lactose cheeses and dairy products on a SCD, you can reduce your overall carbohydrate intake in a major way. Additionally, if you have lactose intolerance, which is when you don’t make enough of the enzyme lactase to fully digest lactose, you reduce the additional stress on the gut.
Regardless of the type of sugar you eat — whether it be high fructose corn syrup or organic coconut sugar — your body still recognizes it as sugar. Unfortunately, this can lead to gut bacterial dysbiosis, inflammation, and digestive issues. For this reason, the SCD cuts down on almost all forms of sugar, especially the kind that is most quickly absorbed by your body into your bloodstream.
More research needs to be done but the SCD can be a good option for someone just starting out on their health journey, thanks to its gut-friendly characteristics and simplicity. That said, remember that no diet is right for everyone, and make sure to work closely with a functional medicine expert so they can help you identify the right diet — and the right amount of carbs! — for your individual body.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.