Where a husband and wife blog to: continue the story told in a book called Dancing in Cornmeal: Life with Autism; enhance the conversation about autism; relieve a writer's need to write; inspire (when the stuff here is really good); network; and share - especially recipes that follow the SCD and Paleo diets. See "Welcome" under TOPICS for a better description, then just keep reading along...

Monday, August 13, 2012

What is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and how does it work?

Okay, so now that I have caught you up on how Lauren is doing, and it’s clear that most of our good news is the result of our discovery in 2005 of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), I’m ready to answer more fully the question, “What is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and how does it work?”  So here comes the craziest synopsis of SCD you’ll ever read. 

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....”  Actually….some undesignated time ago in a body’s intestines just a couple feet below its face, somehow (antibiotic use? irregular immune response?) a digestive track’s nice, normal, peaceful balance of cohabiting bacteria (The Force) got way off balance.  The nasty bacteria (The Dark Side) flourished, killing off all the good bacteria (later organizing and calling themselves Rebel Forces).  The Dark Side’s activity created lots of wearing fermentation and, eventually, a growing layer of crud (The Empire) that blocked enzymes from getting to the food that entered, so the food could no longer be broken down properly, never mind be turned into nutrition!  Over time, pot holes were worn into the lining of the track, and even full-blown breeches into “outer” space.  In this worst case scenario, undigested food particles were escaping the digestive tract, getting into the blood, and being carried to the brain.  That means that not only was the body not receiving the nutrition necessary to minimally run its machinery, it was also now under attack at its headquarters by food turned toxin….  

Somehow, people outside of the deep, dark recesses of the body (this is also a very Horton Hears a Who story) realized the trouble the body was in and stepped into the fight.  The people studied the predicament, decided that the balance of The Force needed to be re-established, and that, to do that, they needed to side with Rebel Forces.  They did this by hitting hard from 2 sides: by starving off The Dark Side, and by introducing new, special Rebel Forces to the battle called Jedi Knights.  The food the Dark Side needed to live?  Starches!  (Specifically, disacchyrides and polysacchyrides.)   And the Jedi they sent in to overcome the weakened evil ones?  Probiotics!  (Specifically, lactobacillus acidophilus.)  These Jedi also helped repair the damaged track, collapsed The Empire, and brought peace to the Force once again!  Well, brought a healed digestive tract and proper digestion once again, but that meant end to pain, suffering, and….peace! 

This story is not over!  (Can someone say Episode I….?)  After a few years of this strategy (once balance is established in The Force), this body may go back to eating some of those starches that fed The Dark Side.  You see, once The Dark Side has been defeated, its former minions are few, blended properly into society, and busy working to do what they are supposed to do in a peaceful society.  So even if they get some nourishment, as long as there is no huge Death Star being built up unawares to recruit them (watch for rumblings, pain, diarrhea and constipation once again!), a balanced Force and peaceful universe should be maintainable.”
Obviously, my Star Wars inspired explanation is not the most scientifically acceptable explanation of the SCD, and I intended that; because I’m not the one to write an irrefutable scientific explanation of the SCD; plus, it already exists in many places. I will send you to those places in just a second.  With that disclaimer behind me, I profess that my extensive research and experience has left me believing that this is what happened to Lauren.  Toxins from improperly digested foods were entering her poor brain for a long while, doing damage to it.  Was she actually born with damage?  I believe she was, but that it was a damage affecting her immune response and her ability to digest, not yet damage to the brain’s centers for language, social skills and cognitive development.  I believe that a/the triggering event of Lauren’s digestive imbalance was early and excessive exposure to antibiotics; she received many firsthand for ear infections and UTI’s, and double-downed when her frequently-ill, nursing mom was on them, too.  So she needed the healing balance of SCD from a very young age.  Yes, that means that I believe that if Lauren had been eating according to the SCD as a toddler, she perhaps would not be diagnosed as autistic today.  Or at least would not be so severely impacted and developmentally delayed. 

Now, for those more scientifically sound explanations of SCD.  First, it exists in the book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle, ©1995 by Elaine Gottschall, and on the official Breaking the Vicious Cycle website.  Elaine Gottschall authorized and contributed to this website before her death in September 2005, the month that Lauren began the SCD.  (I had to put that in, because I have a picture in my head of Elaine’s life on earth ending with her reaching back and handing me a vial of secrets that offered Lauren’s life on this earth a fighting chance.)  Elaine discovered, researched and received a Master in Science perfecting the science of the SCD because she had a deathly ill young daughter with ulcerative colitis, and only one doctor who cared to consider any avenue of healing other than failed drugs and surgery.  (Can you imagine being a mom in the 1950’s surrounded by glasses-at-the-end-of-their-noses doctors telling you they had no option but to perform a colostomy on your 4-year-old?!)  Elaine, a quiet, at-home mom, entered academia at age 47 because that elderly doctor, whose recommendations completely healed her daughter, died before he could record thorough research and establish credibility.  Elaine didn’t want another person to suffer what her daughter had suffered for lack of information, so she slipped into the yoke and did the work and the science in a field of men laughing at her all the way.  Elaine is someone I hold up high as a role model for living with purpose, and I also feel we’re connected as “Mom-Comrades-in-Arms.”  I’m grateful to “the establishment” that is doing its best in its great big, unwieldy, show-me-the-money sort of way; but when your kid is severely ill and “the establishment” scoffs even at that which has succeeded where they have failed and run out of ideas . . . well, that’s what creates a “Mom-Comrade-in-Arms.”  But I digress.

In explanation of the science behind SCD, I also recommend the offerings of the founder of the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet, Natasha Campbell–McBride, MD on the official GAPS website,  and by a favorite blogger of mine, The Paleo Mom.  Though these three women each call this gut condition a different thing, and the diets they recommend have different names, they all advise virtually the same diet to heal the condition.  In fact, you will find similar gut descriptions searching under leaky gut, intestinal permeability, dysbiosis, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, autistic enterocolitis, yeast overgrowth, IBD, IBS, and many other terms; then you will find different diet names as recommendations to heal each, such as SCD, GAPS, Gluten-free, Grain-free, and Paleolithic.  I don’t want to limit one’s understanding of what I’m talking about by giving it a name, because I don’t want you to be limited in your research by thinking only in certain terms.  (Just like researching PDD and not understanding it as autism would have been a crazy, limiting thing for me to do back when Lauren was diagnosed with it.  Ugh!!!)

The SCD was discovered in response to Celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, but it has also helped and healed many with all those similar conditions listed above.  The benefit to kids more likely to be diagnosed as having autistic enterocolitis (the most official sounding title of Lauren’s condition) was realized later when parents with autistic kids were eliminating their kids’ symptoms of autism by putting them on this diet only to address their painful ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s diagnoses or symptoms. 

I will warn that each of the practitioners/PhD’s named above advise a slightly different diet (SCD, GAPS and Paleo), but the basic 2-pronged approach of each diet is the same: Kill off the beasties by eliminating the starches that the beasties feed on; Heal the gut by replenishing it with healthy bacteria and whole foods dense with easily digested nutrients. 

The choices you’ll want to make that differ a bit between each diet will become more clear when you define your body’s unique condition.  I have never followed the GAPS diet, but have read much about it after becoming the family expert on SCD.  I know GAPS is virtually the same as SCD, but that is the extent of my proffered knowledge on the subject.  I have never followed it, so will not specifically address it.

Concerning SCD and Paleo, I know much.  Recently, a relative was deciding between the SCD and Paleo diets to heal some severe IBS-sounding problems like I’ve experienced and I sent him an email outlining these two diets in (hopefully) useful chart form.  I may have something wrong here, and if I do, forgive me.  I am not a doctor nor a qualified, health-care advisor.  (Assume I’m a crazy lunatic, consult your doctor and do your own research!  There, how’s that for a legal disclaimer?)  As far as my Paleo diet knowledge, I have read Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution, I eat and feed my family according to the diet, I own a number of Paleo cookbooks (as well as many SCD cookbooks) and I follow many Paleo blogs on a daily basis—mostly to scope out recipes, but I get tons of other great info that has helped Lauren’s, Craig’s and my health, too.  So here’s the chart, to help you understand where the diets intersect and where they diverge:
No grains or starches (No bread, pasta, prepared foods, rice, corn, quinoa, potato, tapioca—nothing!)
No grains or starches (No bread, pasta, prepared foods, rice, corn, quinoa, potato, tapioca—nothing! This is what starves off the nasty bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine. They need this stuff to live and you deny them! MWAH, HA HA!)
Any meat, preferably grass-fed
Any poultry, preferably pastured, or organic
Any seafood, wild caught
Any meat, poultry, or seafood
No dairy; some allow grass-fed butter or ghee for cooking
(No dairy includes no cheese, though some allow raw and/or grass-fed dairy including cheese.)  
No milk, but homemade yogurt fermented according to specific SCD requirements is considered a staple to the SCD diet. This yogurt is the source of the all-important probiotics necessary for gut healing and healthy flora maintenance.
Real butter (If you can’t tolerate dairy even in this form, use ghee, or forego butter.)
Cheeses—mild cheddar & other “sliceable” cheeses allowed in moderation; dry curd cottage cheese (aka farmer’s cheese); check book or websites for list of allowed cheeses if you choose to keep dairy in your diet.
Any nut and nut butter with no additives.
Coconut and coconut milk (no additives)
No legumes, such as peanuts, soy, green peas.
Any nut and nut butter with no additives.
Coconut and coconut milk (no additives)
Peanuts & peanut butter that’s straight peanuts & salt in moderation.
No soy. Green peas okay. Legumes such as lentils & navy beans must be prepared by soaking according to SCD-specific instructions before preparing.
Any seed.
Any seed is okay after you’ve been on diet for a while, feel good and want to try it.
Any veggie (if canned, only paleo-allowed ingredients on label)
Tubers are okay, but white potatoes are avoided by most followers—decide according to health issues and goals.
Any fresh veggie (NO canned).

No tubers, which are all potatoes, yams, turnip roots, etc.
Any fresh fruit, though in moderation (and there’s a hierarchy of what’s best—berries & melon, and what’s worst—banana)
Any fresh or dried fruit with nothing added (If canned, nothing but the fruit and its own fruit juice as ingredients) No green fruit—riper is better.
Any fresh or dried spice to flavor food (just be sure that the dried is JUST the spice, doesn’t have extra “silicon dioxide” and stuff like that added to help it be “free-flowing”)
Any fresh or dried spice to flavor food (just be sure that the dried is JUST the spice, doesn’t have extra “silicon dioxide” and stuff like that added to help it be “free-flowing”)
For beverages: Only water, tea or coffee
For beverages: Only water, some teas, coffee
No fruit or veggie juices (Ideally speaking.  Instead, eat the food itself, and preferably from as natural, organic sources as possible.)
Pure fruit & veggie juices are fine in moderation.
Only the fruit juice listed as ingredient and NO “from concentrate”
For cooking fats: real butter allowed by some, grass-fed animal fats, coconut oil is preferred.
For raw fats (salad dressing): olive oil, avocado, & nut oils (like macadamia & walnut); coconut oil where it works (it hardens at room temperature)
For cooking fats: real butter, coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower and a few other plant oils are okay, but NOT canola.
For raw fats (salad dressing): olive oil, avocado & nut oils (like macadamia & walnut); coconut oil where it works (it hardens at room temperature)
Any vinegar with no additives is fine. Apple Cider Vinegar with the mother is preferred.
Distilled or wine vinegar with no additives is fine, but Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar is preferred.
NO Balsamic Vinegar, as that is typically sweetened.
NO sweeteners! But if you must: real maple syrup (Grade B dark amber preferred) and real locally-grown honey
As sweetener, only straight, real honey. (The lighter the color, the better.)

Other ways that the Paleo diet and SCD diverge are the original intent of their founders, and the purposes and mindsets of their proponents and followers. Both diets contribute to healing. SCD was originally developed by a pediatrician with the intention of healing celiac disease and related disorders. The Paleolithic diet was first popularized in the 1970’s by a gastroenterologist, and many do try it and maintain it to address health issues. Unlike SCD, however, many followers of the Paleo diet begin or follow the diet to heighten their athletic performance, and/or to lose weight and then maintain a healthy weight. My readings tell me that most of these people maintain the diet long-term because of the unexpected health benefits and healing of disorders they had no idea were connected to their diet. However, because many super-muscled exercise gurus tout the Paleolithic diet as the perfect diet for all humans, tummy aches or not, the Paleolithic diet receives more skepticism as a fad diet than SCD ever had to endure. SCDers tend to be private, grateful people, just happy that they now know what regular BMs are, that their tummies no longer hurt daily, and perhaps that they have avoided surgery. The Paleo community has its share of these kind of folks, but it also has a bunch of people that are as much about tight abs as healthy eating. In fact, the Paleo world likes to call it a Paleo lifestyle, not just a diet. The lifestyle recommendations are valid, and include good, 8+ hours sleep per night, regular exercise, reducing stress, and regular contact with nature. The SCD is just about diet, not lifestyle, but I’m sure many SCDers realize that these things (sleep, stress, exercise, fresh air) affect their GI distress, too, and are addressing them accordingly.

Our family has followed the SCD since 2005, though Lauren is the only one for whom we must, and always, serve 100% SCD food.  (i.e. The rest of us can cheat according to our personal free wills.)  Bryn and I have discovered that we must eat gluten-free (I completely healed my IBS a few years ago doing so) though there are other health issues I have that are eliminated only when I eat SCD, and others still that improve only when I follow Paleo rules!  In full and final disclosure, I will tell that this year (2012) Craig, Lauren and I have been eating a Paleolithic diet.  For Lauren, because she couldn’t do the dairy components of SCD, that pretty much just meant taking legumes out of her diet.  Bye bye favorite peas, peanuts and baked beans.  (On the occasional treat list—cuz life is perhaps not worth living without, maybe…once a summer?... SCD homemade baked beans!)  We removed these, as well as certain veggies out of her diet, because they have properties which contribute to inflammation in the body.  Pretty much we took the parts of SCD that Lauren could tolerate, and added the Paleolithic Diet guidelines that were more limiting (i.e. we didn’t add in anything SCD illegal), because the Paleo guidelines better address auto-immune inflammation.  Since beginning that experiment on March 1, Lauren’s exhibited a healthier, happier, calmer self less prone to behavioral outbursts from anxiety and more interested in her world and in new activities.  YEAH!!!  Craig and I have seen tremendous benefits to our own health, so we are pretty much eating what Lauren eats now and we are attempting to stay 100% paleo in our eating.

About 6 months ago, we began sprouting (by soaking and dehydrating) the nuts we eat as snacks—almonds, pecans and walnuts—which are staples as snack food and quickie breakfast “granola” in our house.  I decided to do this after reading the recommendation on several paleo and whole foods websites which explained that sprouting nuts breaks down their phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors (which are also in seeds, grains and legumes).  Phytic acid is what prevents a nut from sprouting prematurely, but it also strongly inhibits mineral absorption in humans, especially of iron and zinc.  Enzyme inhibitors are deterrents to the nuts’ natural predators, like insects, but they are also what make them difficult for people to digest.  We have always noticed digestion issues when Lauren has had a greater number than usual of nuts, but now that we are sprouting our snack nuts, we are only noticing the problem when Lauren has items containing nut flours, which are made with raw, unsprouted nuts.  So we are reducing the frequency of these offerings in the house.  Craig and I have also noticed that we no longer get that “heavy nut feeling” in our gut, so we continue to soak and dehydrate our nuts. They taste lighter, sweeter and crunchier that way, too.

Before closing, I want to clarify some ways that Lauren’s SCD (for the 6½ years before we transitioned recently to paleo) did not look like another person’s SCD.  Lauren’s diet is dairy-free, except for a little bit of real butter.  Because Lauren cannot tolerate dairy, she does not get her probiotics from homemade yogurt.  She has received her probiotics by supplement for many years.  When we put Lauren on the SCD, we changed from a multi-strain probiotic to a single strain, lactobacillus acidophilus only, as advised by Elaine Gottschall.  The other way that Lauren’s diet differs makes the third paragraph of my Star Wars-inspired explanation invalid for Lauren.  We have not, in the 6+ years since Lauren began on the SCD, attempted to introduce non-SCD foods back into her diet.  Because Lauren has no clear communication system for expressing how she feels, we have to determine how foods agree with her by her mood and behavior.  A lot of times, it is a complete conundrum.  She will tantrum and I will say, “Oh, my gosh, she’s had too many nuts!” and Craig will reply, “No, I just saw her stub her toe.”  So . . . there is no reliable way to know whether Lauren is hitting her head for the fun of feeling the rhythmic smack or because a new food that was introduced back into her diet is giving her stomach pains or making her feel sore all over.  The only thing we could possibly look out for is her BM habits becoming less regular and healthy.  That’s a stressful way to live (logging BM’s on the calendar and stressing when you missed one—did I forget to log it or was there truly no log?) and by the time irregularity happens, there’s a painful cycle begun that is hard to break, because food isn’t the only factor in comfortable toileting.  So there y’go (TMI, I know.  Moms do that.)

Will we ever introduce long forbidden foods back into Lauren’s diet?  Well, now that we’ve read so much evidence and lived so much personal experience that all of our SCD/Paleo forbidden foods are pretty much what’s keeping the average human less healthy than they could be (and most humans super unhealthy), we’re not very motivated to introduce the illegal stuff.  Okay, Craig and I will cheat on coconut milk ice cream at home and on Ben & Jerry’s every 2 years at a friend’s house.  And when Bryn is home from college, we may indulge in a gluten-free treat if she is inspired to bake, and we will definitely watch a movie with some gluten-free pizza at least once.  (Lauren will indulge in an SCD substitute on all such occasions.)  But that’s the extent of our foreseen cheating.  Unless the zombie apocalypse comes.  If that happens, may I be armed at that moment (to gain a minute or two), and may I happen to be 2 feet from a Cinnabon kiosk.


  1. I only lasted for about 3 days on the paleo diet! How do you do it?!?!?

    1. Ha ha...I don't know as we could have made the transition from Standard American Diet to Paleo without the 7 year ramp up from learning to be SCD cooks for Lauren. (And the many year ramp up to that as dairy-/soy-/gluten-/yeast-/artificial ingredient-free cooks.) So I'm more impressed with people who are eating yeast breads and ice cream one day and giving them up the next (which I bet is what you tried). I just read a great book, which I think I will review here shortly, and it made clear that the 1st week of transition is tough on the body. It takes that first week to stop burning all our calories from carbs, so we constantly crave more carbs, even though we have plenty of fat stores. It can feel like detox/withdrawal. Craig and I would get up from a big meal and say, "Oh, my gosh! I'm starving!" But our bodies have since transitioned. "Thankfully," my body actively rejects certain foods like gluten and dairy, so... let's just say it's easier making the choice one meal at a time when, otherwise, you suffer in one way or another after you eat. I am more impressed that Craig makes the choice daily, as his body handles all the bad food better than mine. But he feels GREAT on Paleo, and has brought his cholesterol levels from high to normal, and his BP & weight down on Paleo. That's his motivation.

      The hardest part? Keeping ample supplies of fresh produce in the house. I wish there was a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's down the street, but I have to travel about 10 miles to the nearest one. Right now, we're trying to get in the habit of taking Lauren out for short jaunts to Publix or Kroger, then they serve 2 purposes (and don't feel like such a chore): food gathering; and tiring, fun, community outing for Lauren. It's easier to go by myself, but more rewarding to go as a family, so...making it work is an everyday learning curve for us.

      By the way, I get my ice cream fix from pictures on your blog. Seriously, girl, how you stay trim on all that ice cream and fro-yo...I am highly impressed.

      TODAY how I got through being Paleo?...cut up strawberries, kiwi, and banana with coconut "whipped cream" on top. Yummy. Oh, and when I should have been vacuuming the house, instead I made a pumpkin banana bread using coconut flour. (I had to try this blogger's recipe http://www.unrefinedkitchen.com/2012/08/23/pumpkin-banana-raisin-bread-with-coconut-flour/ It's GOOD!) We'll start posting some good-looking stuff and you'll see how we do it. :-D