What is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)? SCD is a diet focused on eating foods that have only simple carbohydrates, or single sugars. This includes many fresh vegetables, fruit, protein, and honey. Eating simple carbohydrates, as opposed to complex carbohydrates, influences your intestinal bacteria.
The best introduction to the diet is to read Breaking The Vicious Cycle, by Elaine Gottschall. There’s a fascinating story behind the formulation of the SCD diet, and many live by it, have healed themselves with it, or have healed a child with it. The goal of the diet is to starve out bad bacteria in the gut so that your intestines can heal. I’m simplifying it of course, but to get a full understanding, read the book.
SCD helps people with Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis (collectively known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD), Diverticulitis, Celiac Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Autism, as well as many other diseases that are affected by or result in intestinal issues. The other interesting and important aspect of the diet is how it helps both gut and brain, and how they are connected and affected by imbalance in the gut. And, it’s a gluten-free, grain-free, sugar-free, lactose-free diet as well, so it serves a lot of folks with food intolerances and allergies.
SCD diet is the culmination of Elaine Gotchall’s experience with her daughter, who at a very young age had a digestive illness. You can read a more in-depth story here, but the bottom line is that she spent a lot of time figuring out what would heal her daughter, and SCD is a product of that tireless effort that many of you may relate to.
SCD allowable foods
Here’s a summary of what you can eat when following SCD. The original source for guidelines is in Elaine’s Breaking the Vicious Cycle cookbook. There is a list of “illegal” and “legal” foods for SCD on the Breaking the Vicious Cycle website. This guidance was developed several years ago, before food labeling laws improved, but it is a good idea to be extra cautious and contact the manufacturer to confirm that there are no additives in packaged or prepared foods.
My experience in reading stories and talking to folks who’ve followed SCD with success is, until you are healthy, “when in doubt, leave it out.” Then add one food item at a time, and wait a few weeks to make sure your body is ok with it.
Fish and shellfish
Fresh and frozen fish and shellfish with no additives. Check labels to make sure there are no additives. Canned fish in oil or water is allowed.
Poultry and meat
Fresh or frozen poultry and meat with no additives. Check labels to make sure there are no additives. No processed meats because they have additives.
Non-starchy vegetables, fresh or frozen. No canned vegetables or vegetables in jars, and no additives.
Fresh and frozen fruit with no additives. Fruit canned in it’s own juice are allowed. No additives. Dried fruit with no additives other than fruit juice or oil is allowed. Read labels carefully.
Yogurt fermented for 24 hours using SCD legal yogurt or yogurt starter. Cheese with virtually no lactose is allowed, including Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, Blue, Brie, Cheddar, Colby, Gouda, Gruyere, Havarti, Swiss, Farmer’s Cheese (cultured dry-cured cottage cheese with no added cream or milk). See Elaine’s book for the full list.
All types of eggs are allowed.
No grains. This is a grain-free diet. Potatoes, yams, parsnip, and a few other beans may be tried after considerable improvement in your health.
Beans and other legumes
Navy, green, kidney, black beans, split peas, lentils, and peanuts are allowed. Dried beans need to be soaked overnight, rinsed and drained.
Nuts and seeds
All nuts without no additives. Seeds are not recommended until 3 months into the diet, or after considerable improvement in your health and no symptoms.
Oils and butter
All oils, including butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil. No additives.
Honey, fruit juice, fruit. Bananas and apple sauce are good for baking.
Herbs, spices, salt
Fresh or dried herbs and spices without additives.
Juices without added sugar, nut milks, tea or coffee, very dry wine. Instant coffee is not allowed.
Vinegar without added sugar, ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard without any sugar or other additives. No soy sauce or coconut aminos.
How do I start SCD?
Chapter 9, Introducing the Diet (in Breaking the Vicious Cycle) covers how to start, and what to avoid. There is also a list of phases on a site called Pecanbread, which is focused on children but I think it can be applied to adults as well.
I’ve found when my son had symptoms that seemed to be getting worse, we went back to the basics of chicken soup with soft chicken, carrots, and then introduced more food after a few days of soup and very soft vegetables.
Here are some things I learned when I first started SCD with my son:
- The most basic recipes are the easiest and the best
- Avoid all additives and processed food
- If you’re not sure, try one thing at a time. Wait 3 weeks before introducing the next thing.
- Start slow, or start with a simple diet; do what works best for you
- Freeze food and buy in bulk when possible
- Modify it for your body; if you need to go dairy free, do it
- Try eating small meals throughout the day
- Drink water, broth, and/or electrolytes
- Avoid lots of sweets; balance out your diet with other foods
- Don’t try to live on nut flours
- Prepare lots of snacks for travel
- Know what brands of food and drink you can have when you’re away from home
- Think easy-to-digest foods when you’re starting out or experiencing symptoms (cooked veggies and fruits, smoothies, soups)
- Find out if you’re vitamin or mineral deficient
- Do what’s right for you. Bring food you like to parties, explain in simple terms that you have some food intolerances.
Try not to get caught up in balancing your diet based on food pyramids—they don’t apply here; nutrition does though. You may be forgoing some things by not having grains or cereals so you’ll need to balance that out in another way (and/or take vitamins) which I think is essential for healing and general mental health.
How long is up to your body and recovery. Everyone has a different journey on SCD, but in general many who have had success stay on it for life, or for at least a few years.
Many folks combine SCD and medication with great success. This can be a stepping stone to removing medication. Again, everyone is different, so your mileage may vary.