I Tried It: The Specific Carbohydrate Diet

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As I go further into my Nutrition degree, we’ve been learning more nutrition theory and practical elements, like clinical practice with patients and specific dietary models. The third assignment this year is to trial one of the dietary models we could potentially recommend to a patient. Anything from paleo to raw vegan to GAPS to 5:2. The idea is that we won’t truly understand how our clients feel until we walk a mile in their shoes.

What is the Specific Carbohydrate Diet?

With that in mind, I’ve just completed  a week and a half on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). This aim of this dietary model is to help heal the intestinal wall and rebalance the good and bad bacteria within the gut. More specifically, it is aimed at those with severe intestinal difficulties, such as those with Celiac, Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis. To quote the definitive SCD book / website, Breaking The Vicious Cycle:

The allowed carbohydrates are monosaccharides and have a single molecule structure that allow them to be easily absorbed by the intestine wall. Complex carbohydrates which are disaccharides (double molecules) and polysaccharides (chain molecules) are not allowed. Complex carbohydrates that are not easily digested feed harmful bacteria in our intestines causing them to overgrow, producing by products and inflaming the intestine wall. The diet works by starving out these bacteria and restoring the balance of bacteria in our gut.

On the diet, only monosaccharide carbohydrates are allowed to be eaten as all others require extra digestion steps to break the chemical bonds down to monosaccharide carbohydrates. In a nutshell, ‘no food should be ingested that contains carbohydrates other than those found in fruits, honey, properly-prepared yogurt, and those vegetables and nuts listed here.’

There is quite a lot of evidence supporting the efficacy of this dietary model, however because it is so intense, it can be considered a ‘last resort’.

How It Works

The diet is split into two parts; a 2-5 day introductory period to reduce severe intestinal complaints, such as pain, cramping and diarrhoea and then a reintroductory period to slowly introduce foods back into the diet to see how the body reacts. The 2 – 5 day introductory period focuses on plain foods that are known to help heal the intestinal lining, reduce bloating, gas, diarrhoea and pain and rebalance gut flora. Quite frankly, it is the blandest food known to man – foodies look away now!- which is why this dietary model is described as a last resort. Sample foods include dry cottage cheese, eggs (boiled, poached or scrambled), apple cider, homemade gelatine, homemade chicken soup including broth, chicken and pureed carrots, broiled plain beef patty, broiled fish, homemade cheesecake. All food must be homemade so you know exactly what ingredients are in each meal.

Once the intestinal complaints subside, cooked fruit, banana and additional vegetables may be tried. After this, the rest of the food in the dietary model may be introduced.

My Experience on the Diet 

I did one day on the introductory diet, so I could experience what a client might feel on this  part of the dietary model. I intentionally chose a day where I was at work, so I wouldn’t be tempted by anything on offer in my local cafes and restaurants. I’ve laid out my food and drinks throughout the day below.

Breakfast

Lunch

Dinner

Drinks

Day 1

3 scrambled eggs, water

Two plain beef patties, water

Plain chicken legs and breast, nettle tea

2 cups of nettle tea

I am a coffee addict, so by 3pm, I was frantically Googling ‘herbal teas allowed on scd introductory diet’. Happily, nettle tea is allowed so I had a few cups to tide me through the rest of the afternoon. By the end of the day, I was utterly exhausted and went to bed at 8pm – no joke!

Day 2 – 9 were easier in some respects because I could have a wider variety of foods that weren’t too far off the paleo template that I normally choose.

Breakfast

Lunch

Dinner

Drinks

Day 1

3 scrambled eggs, water

Two plain beef patties, water

Plain chicken legs and breast, nettle tea

2 cups of nettle tea

Day 2

Smoothie (almond milk, almond butter, kale, 1 tbsp pumpkin seeds, 1 handful blueberries, 2 tbsp collagen hydrolysate, 1 banana, 1/2 avocado, 1 handful kale), rasher of bacon

Chicken salad with mixed leaves, flaked almonds, walnuts, olive oil, s&p to dress

Red lentil and beef curry

1 cup of coffee, 2 L water, 1 cup ginger tea

Day 3

Smoothie 

Mixed salad with crab, tuna, string beans, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, rocket, 2 hard boiled eggs, 1 cashew & date Nakd bar

Courgetti bolognaise, 1 cashew & date Nakd bar

1 cup of coffee, 2.5L water, 1 cup ginger tea, 1 cup nettle tea

Day 4

Smoothie 

Leftover beef and red lentil curry, 1 cashew & date Nakd bar

Steak with sautéed mushrooms and kale, 3 strawberries

1 cup of coffee, 2.5L water, 1 cup nettle tea

Day 5

Smoothie, 1 rasher of bacon

n/a

Beef ragu with spiralised carrots

Lemon water, 1 cup of coffee, 1 L water

Day 6

Smoothie 

n/a

Red pepper, green pepper and double Gloucester frittata

Lemon water, 1 cup ginger tea, 1 cup of Dr. Stuart’s Skin Tonic, 1L water

Day 7

Smoothie 

Small wedge of double Gloucester cheese

Beef patty with mixed leaves

1L water, 1 cup of Dr Stuart’s Skin Tonic

Day 8

Smoothie, 1 rasher of bacon, small piece of leftover frittata, 1 scrambled egg

Chicken burrito bowl with guacamole

Apple, two pieces of blue cheese

2L water, 1 large glass of red wine, 1 nettle tea

Day 9

Smoothie, 1 rasher of bacon

Chicken salad with mixed leaves, flaked almonds, walnuts, olive oil, s&p to dress

Chicken cacciatore with spinach

2L water, 1 cup of Dr Stuart’s Skin Tonic

There were two slightly tricky points.

From days 5-7, I had terrible intestinal discomfort, including stomach pain, diarrhoea, bloating, gurgling, nausea and general fatigue and headaches. On the various SCD websites, there is much discussion of ‘bacterial die-off’ (also called herxheimer reactions), where the fuel for the harmful bacteria (polysaccharides and disaccharides) has been removed from the diet, leading to ‘die-off’ of the harmful bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine in large numbers and the release of too many toxins for the liver to be able to process and dispose of at one time.

To put it simply, I was in a bad place for three days, with no appetite, no energy and a lot of discomfort. Interestingly (from a scientific, not a personal perspective), both my husband and son became ill one after the other, with the same symptoms that I experienced, so what I originally thought was bacterial die-off, may have been stomach flu. I’m still not sure.

The other tricky point was eating enough to have enough energy for exercise. After I recovered from the bacterial ‘die-off’, I found that I had to be quite conscious of making sure I was eating enough food throughout the day and in particular, before any workouts. I struggled with a spin class towards the end of my time on SCD, getting through on sheer grit and endorphins.

Final Thoughts

After I recovered from the die-off, I felt great. Full of energy, with far less intestinal discomfort, bloating and gas. I’ve actually continued a modified version of this dietary model for the last two weeks, excluding potatoes and sweet potatoes from my meals.

I’ve lost 3 kgs, my skin is much clearer and I’m enjoying spending more time in the kitchen and taking time over the meals I prepare. The other benefit is the amount of money I’ve saved from eating out less – so many wins!

Photo by Yvonne Lee Harijanto
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