People with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and other digestive disorders may benefit from following a specific carbohydrate diet (SCD). This diet eliminates sugars and hard-to-digest carbs like grains and grain products. You should talk to your provider first because the diet may lead to malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss.
A specific carbohydrate diet eliminates select carbohydrates from your diet. This eases symptoms of digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). People who follow a specific carbohydrate diet don’t eat grains or grain products. They avoid bread, pasta and cereal. The diet is also very low in sugar and lactose (a sugar naturally found in milk and dairy products).
U.S. pediatrician Dr. Sidney Haas developed the specific carbohydrate diet in the 1920s to help children with celiac disease. This digestive and autoimmune disease affects people of all ages. It causes symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, gas and weight loss. It can affect a child’s growth and development.
The diet gained greater popularity in the late 1980s after Elaine Gottschall published a book called "Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet." In her book, Gottschall described how the diet improved her daughter’s IBD symptoms.
Carbohydrates (carbs) include fiber, starches and sugars found in certain foods and beverages. Your body changes these carbs into sugar (glucose) to give you energy.
There are two types of carbohydrates:
Medical experts are still researching how this diet helps. It may be that people with certain digestive disorders are unable to break down some carbohydrates. As a result, undigested food particles stay in the intestines where bacteria grow and feed on them. This can lead to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria that irritates the intestines, which may lead to worsened gut symptoms and inflammation.
The specific carbohydrate diet eliminates hard-to-digest carbs. You only eat carbohydrates that are easy for your digestive system to break down and absorb. This keeps the harmful bacteria from growing, which may help you feel better and reduce inflammation.
This diet is also low in processed foods, food additives, and preservatives. Some of these foods, additives, and ingredients have been linked to gut inflammation. Avoiding these additives may be another reason people feel better on this diet.
Children and adults with certain conditions may benefit from a specific carbohydrate diet. These chronic diseases include:
In her book, Gottschall suggests that diet might also be helpful for diverticulitis, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and other chronic diseases. There has been no research confirming that a specific carbohydrate diet is helpful for these diseases.
You can eat these foods when you follow a specific carbohydrate diet:
You should not eat these foods when you follow a specific carbohydrate diet:
How do you start a specific carbohydrate diet?
You should talk to your healthcare provider before starting a restrictive diet. Your provider may recommend keeping a food journal to track the foods and drinks you consume. You can also use the journal to track symptoms and improvements. In her book, Gotschall recommends an introduction period of two to five days where you limit your diet to a few easy-to-tolerate foods. You then slowly add in other foods.
Following a specific carbohydrate diet may put a digestive disease into remission. This means you have no symptoms. One study of 200 people with Crohn’s disease found that close to half of those who followed the diet saw an improvement in symptoms. They experienced less pain, fatigue and sleep problems.
It can be challenging to eliminate certain foods and food groups from your diet. This is especially difficult when socializing or dining out. This diet can also be high in food costs, as you eliminate many low-cost options such as grains. In addition, a specific carbohydrate diet increases your risk for malnutrition and may lead to unhealthy weight loss. Your body may not get enough calcium, as well as vitamins B, D and E. Your provider may recommend seeing a registered dietitian to ensure you don’t miss important nutrients.
Some people follow a specific carbohydrate diet for life. Others are able to gradually reintroduce foods after going one year without symptoms. Some people transition to a modified specific carbohydrate diet that includes rice, oats, potato, and quinoa. If symptoms return, you can resume the diet.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have an IBD or another type of digestive disorder, you may get symptom relief by following a specific carbohydrate diet (SCD). But you should consult with your healthcare provider before starting this diet. A specific carbohydrate diet eliminates all grains and grain products and greatly reduces your intake of sugars. Instead, you eat carbohydrates that are easier for your body to break down and absorb. It can be challenging to cut out entire groups of foods. The diet may also put you at risk for malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss. If your provider thinks this is the best dietary approach for you, they can help you get started.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/19/2022.
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