What’s the Difference Between the GAPS and SCD Diets?
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I get asked a lot by parents of children with neurodevelopmental disorders what the difference is between the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet and the SCD (specific carbohydrate diet), and how to choose which of these therapeutic diets is best for their child.
Both diets are similar in nature, so some people get confused about which one to try and why. The two diets are based on some of the same principles. Essentially, the GAPS Diet is built on the SCD Diet, but is more comprehensive in nature.
The SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet)
The SCD diet was developed by Sidney Haas, MD in the 1950s. It was popularized by a book written by one of his patient’s mothers, Elaine Gottschall. She wrote the book, called Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet, after Dr. Haas died so that his work, which had greatly benefitted her child, would continue on.
The SCD diet was recommended for celiac patients for many years because it eliminates gluten-containing grains, as well as other grains. Interestingly, the SCD diet is even more effective than simply eliminating gluten, likely due to cross-reactivity of other non-gluten-containing grains.
The main rule of the SCD diet is to remove most polysaccharides (which are starches like bread, pasta, grains, potatoes, and corn—starches like dried beans, lentils and split peas that have been soaked overnight can be tolerated by some) and disaccharides (which are double sugar molecules like lactose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, and isomaltose).
The reason for removing these foods is because when they are not completely broken down by digestion, some disaccharide molecules will remain in the intestines where pathogenic bacteria feed on them and multiply in number. Polysaccharides break down into di- and monosaccharides. Monosaccharides are absorbed into the body from the digestive tract, but disaccharides are not. If disaccharides are not further broken down into monosaccharides, pathogenic bacteria feast on them.
It’s a vicious cycle—when there is an imbalance in the gut bacteria and pathogenic bacteria get the upper hand, digestion is impaired. And when digestion is impaired, pathogenic bacteria get access to more food, which helps them increase in number. To break this cycle, the SCD diet removes their ability to get food by eliminating intake of poly- and disaccharides. Levels of pathogenic bacteria then decline.
The SCD diet also introduces long-fermented yogurt, which is rich in beneficial probiotic bacteria that help to balance and crowd out the pathogenic bacteria in the gut. Together, these two main dietary changes can have a beneficial impact on gut bacterial balance, which helps the gut heal over time.
The GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet
The GAPS diet was developed by Natasha Campbell McBride, MD, a neurologist who went back to school to get a master’s degree in nutrition because she couldn’t find effective treatments for her son with autism. She discovered the SCD diet, but felt as though it needed additional components to be a more effective solution for her son and others like him. She created a complete protocol that she feels addresses the digestive issues and gut imbalances present in our children that create varying neurological symptoms. Her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, outlines the diet.
While the SCD diet is focused on what foods are removed from the diet, the GAPS diet is focused on what foods are added. Healing, nutrient-dense foods that come from healthy sources are emphasized.
Grass-fed or pasture raised meats, free-range chickens and eggs, and organic foods are recommended to increase nutrient intake and reduce toxicant exposure. High-sulfur foods, like garlic and onions, are recommended to support the body’s methylation process, important for proper metabolism in our children.
Antimicrobial foods, like garlic and coconut oil, are included to help reduce the pathogenic bacteria in the gut. In some cases, pharmaceutical antimicrobial agents that don’t harm the liver are recommended to combat yeast. Fermented vegetables, like long-fermented sauerkraut (cabbage is also good for the gut lining) are added to help replenish beneficial gut microbes.
Meat stock and bone broth are foundational foods of the GAPS diet as they are nutrient dense and healing to the gut lining. Meat stock is made by boiling meat bones with some meat on them for a few hours and is recommended for people starting out on the diet. Bone broth, which is cooked over a 24-plus hour period, is recommended for people who have already achieved some healing on the diet.
Juicing is another prominent feature of the GAPS diet. The GAPS milkshake is a combination of juiced beets, apples, and carrots, raw egg yolk, sour cream (if dairy is tolerated), and healthy fats to help improve constipation, deliver nutrients and stimulate the gallbladder to dispel bile—all in a surprisingly tasty drink.
Instead of iodine supplementation to replenish a nutrient often insufficient in our children, the GAPS diet recommends iodine painting, which involves painting a patch of iodine on the skin and letting it absorb into the skin. The diet also recommends Epsom salt baths for magnesium absorption, an important mineral also often insufficient in our children.
In addition, the diet also focuses on removing toxicants from the environment, including those in health, beauty, or cleaning products—or those found in the home itself (mold, heavy metals, water contaminants, etc.).
The final big difference of the GAPS diet vs SCD is that it often begins with a six-stage introduction phase, which begins by removing a lot of foods from the diet—in particular, fiber-containing foods and slowly adding foods back in to see what is tolerated. Children who are constipated, it’s better to begin the GAPS diet by skipping the introduction phase and starting the full GASPS diet. Once bowel movements regulate, the introduction phase can be explored. For children who are not constipated, the introduction phase helps the bowel to rest, allowing it to heal.
Which Diet Is Best for My Child, SCD or GAPS?
The best way to determine which diet is best for your child is to read both books so that you can understand what is required to implement the diets and why the recommendations are made. Once you understand the diets, consider what your family is capable of. Each diet involves major dietary and lifestyle changes. If one diet seems more doable than the other, then start with that diet if you don’t want to take on too many changes at once. You can also consider your child’s digestive symptoms. If digestion isn’t a major complaint, you might prefer the SCD diet, which doesn’t require as many dietary changes. If digestion is a central complaint, easing into the GAPS diet can really help due to its strong gut-healing focus.
If your child has very strong carbohydrate cravings—for sweets and/or starches—that’s a red flag that an underlying gut imbalance, or dysbiosis, exists. Starches and sugars feed pathogenic gut bacteria, which can create cravings in your child in order to get the nutrients they need. It will be a challenge to get your child to switch to new foods, but the work is well worth it.
In making the decision between the two diets, you also want to consider what type of person you are. If you like to dive headfirst into new projects or protocols, like I do, then you’ll be ready to handle the GAPS diet. If you prefer to take things one step at a time, you could start with the SCD and then move the GAPS diet if you feel that you want to add more dietary components.
It’s a Win-Win
Both the SCD and GAPS diets are effective in resolving digestive-based neurological symptoms in children like ours. Read the books and talk with your child’s practitioner to decide which diet might work best and if any changes need to be made to tailor it to your child’s specific needs. Either way, these diets can make a big difference in our children’s lives.
Want to know what other parents have experienced with the SCD and GAPS diets? Check out our Facebook group, the My Child Will Thrive Village to join other parents like you in this important conversation.