My latest bout of illness raised a question for me about diet. It looked like I’d be using diet for the long haul, with this disease, sticking to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet or something similar–it seemed clear that diet was working. But my question was, Why was this diet working? Specifically, was the SCD working because I had cut out fiber, or because I had cut out complex carbs?
The problems I’d had this week seemed to relate to added fiber. I had eaten peach skins, carrot skins, and the rind and seeds of a squash. All were well cooked, but they had still scraped against my colon and caused me to bleed, so I was now going back to mushier foods.
The SCD folks would caution that it’s not all about scraping. The most important part of the diet is avoiding complex carbohydrates, meaning grains and most legumes, because those feed the “bad” bacteria that were supposedly in my gut. Those bad bacteria were releasing toxins, and my colon was inflamed to combat those toxins. By starving the bad bacteria of carbs, I could give my gut a chance to become uninflamed and heal itself. The diet was largely working, so I’d been inclined to think the SCD people were probably right–and they had decades of experience to back themselves up.
But at the same time, ever since meeting with Alison, I’d been reading books by the suite of popular doctors who recommend against the animal products so prevalent in the SCD. These are doctors like Ornish, Fuhrman, Klaper, and Barnard. For health and longevity, and also for autoimmune disease, they essentially recommend going vegan because animal products have so many inflammatory properties. Their philosophy worked well for Alison, and it was almost the opposite of the SCD.
The two philosophies are simple:
- SCD: The problem is a bad colony of bacteria in your gut, which releases toxins and causes your inflammation. You have to starve the bad bacteria of complex carbs while gradually replacing them with good bacteria from probiotic yogurt.
- Vegan: The problem is inflammation in general. Refined grains and animal products are inflammatory, causing various autoimmune diseases like colitis to develop. If you go off these inflammatory foods, the inflammation in your whole body will go down, including in your gut.
I wondered: What would happen if I stayed on a low-fiber diet, avoiding scraping my intestines, but followed the vegan doctors instead of the SCD?
It certainly was tempting to try. A vegan, whole-foods diet would be easier than the diet I was currently on. It would have the added bonus of many anti-cancer properties–these doctors are adamant that cancer can be prevented through their dietary recommendations. I would be able to eat grains again–just not refined grains, and I’d need to prepare them much more carefully than in the past, soaking beans a long time and making my own bread and possibly avoiding gluten still. But I wouldn’t have to get so much protein from meat. And I would feel so much less stressed about doing long-term damage to my body.
As I began tapering off the prednisone, I was forging a new plan.
- Return to the simple Specific Carbohydrate Diet I’d been on before my recent relapse. I would keep the avocados and bell peppers, but no more peach peels, carrot skins, or squash rinds or seeds. I would get my gut back to the semi-healthy state of a week ago.
- Experiment with SCD legumes. In the later stages of the SCD, lentils are allowed, and some beans. I could try eating ones that were thoroughly cooked and as soft as possible–red lentils, for instance, cooked into mush.
- If my body didn’t tolerate the lentils, stick with the SCD as it’s written, without cheating anymore or jumping ahead to any more future stages.
- BUT, if my body did tolerate the lentils, experiment with some non-gluten grains that are forbidden by the SCD but are recommended by the vegans. Brown rice, for example.
- If my body couldn’t handle the grains, stick with the SCD, but with lentils substituting for meat. This would keep me much more vegan than I would have been normally.
- BUT, if my body could handle the grains, transition to the kind of vegan, anti-inflammatory diet recommended by the suite of vegan doctors.
If my body could handle the grains and legumes, I could conclude that the benefits I’d been getting from the SCD were mostly from its low fiber, not from the absence of complex carbs.
Thinking back to when I had started the SCD, I had already been on a low-fiber diet for a month or two beforehand. It was only when I started the SCD that my symptoms had seemed to improve. That pointed strongly to the SCD being effective–to the problem, in fact, being my gut bacteria colony. By doing this experiment, was I in denial yet again? Was I just trying to squirm my way out of the SCD, first by cheating last week, now by rationalizing legumes?
I didn’t think so. It wasn’t like I was asking for deep-fried cheese curds, for God’s sake. A vegan, whole-grain diet would still be life-altering. I wasn’t being lazy; I was still willing to work and cook and plan. It was just that all these vegan doctors were convincing me that maybe their way could work, too. Before I committed to one or two years with no grains–and making Ron a paleo with me–it seemed worth exploring just a little bit more.