We've been hearing a lot about our gut health, good bacteria and the gut-brain connection as of late. Against the backdrop of this emerging area, the GAPS diet is making waves, claiming to utilize the gut-brain connection to treat myriad conditions — both physical and psychological.
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We dug into the GAPS diet and its claims. Here's what you need to know.
What Is the GAPS Diet?
The Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet aka GAPS diet was developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a United Kingdom-based doctor who specializes in nutrition for digestive and immune system disorders, as well as behavioral and learning disabilities.
The diet focuses on the connection between our GI tract and the brain.
There is a two-way communication pathway between our gut and our brain, by both an anatomical connection called the vagus nerve and a biological or "wireless" connection that is carried through our bloodstream via hormones, per an March 2019 paper published in Neuron. Both of these modes of communication are influenced by the bacteria in our gut. The food we eat plays an important role in our overall gut environment and health.
The GAPS diet believes that a plethora of conditions from autism to depression and even schizophrenia can be treated by using this gut-brain connection, with our diets being the driving force.
What Do You Eat on the GAPS Diet?
The purpose of the GAPS diet is to "detoxify the person, to lift the toxic fog off the brain to allow it to develop and function properly. In order to achieve that, we need to clean up and heal the digestive tract so it stops being the major source of toxicity in the body and becomes the source of nourishment, as it is supposed to be."
The GAPS diet is broken into three protocols:
1. Nutrition Protocol
This protocol is further broken down into three parts: the Introduction Diet, the Full GAPS diet and a final stage that helps you wean off the GAPS diet. Where you start — the Introduction versus Full GAPS diet phase — depends on your condition and current diet.
The Introduction Diet is divided into six stages and it can take three to six weeks to complete all of the stages. Once you've completed all of the stages, you move to the Full GAPS diet, which lasts for a minimum of 18 to 24 months.
The final phase of the nutrition protocol is called Coming Off the GAPS Diet, which is detailed in the book Gut and Healthy Psychology Syndrome.
Foods to Eat
The foods you can eat depend on which part of the diet you're following and which stage you're in.
During the Introduction Diet, which lasts for three to six weeks, you'll drink a cup of room temperature, filtered water every morning. Then, you'll eat the following foods during each of its six stages.
- Homemade meat or fish stock
- Soup made with stock
- Juice from probiotic foods
- Boiled meat or other soft tissues
- Ginger tea between meals with a little honey
Continue with stage one and add:
- Raw organic egg yolks
- Stews or casseroles made with meat and vegetables
- Increase the amount of juice from probiotic and fermented foods you're eating.
- Start adding a teaspoon of ghee each day while gradually increasing your portion.
Continue with foods from stages one and two and add:
- Two teaspoons of avocado (gradually increase)
- Pancakes (made of nut butter, eggs and a piece of winter squash or bone marrow)
- Eggs cooked with ghee or goose or duck fat
Continue with previous diet stages one through three and add:
- Meats cooked by roasting or grilling
- Cold-pressed olive oil
- Freshly pressed juices
- Baked bread from ground nuts or seeds
Continue with foods from previous stages and add:
- Cooked apple
- Raw vegetables
To the foods you've been eating, add:
- Raw peeled apple
- Gradually add raw fruit and more honey
- Use dried fruit as a sweetener in baking
Once you've completed the Introduction Diet, the Full Gaps Diet is followed for 18 to 24 months. The bulk of your diet should include:
- Bone broth or meat stock with every meal
- Fresh meats (hormone-free/grass-fed if possible)
- Animal fats
- Fish and shellfish
- Organic farm-fresh eggs (if well tolerated)
- Fermented foods
- Baked goods made from nut flours and fruit (in moderation only)
Foods to Avoid
During the Introduction Diet phase, you cannot eat any foods not listed in the six stages and the foods must be consumed in the recommended order and quantities. One note: Citrus is not allowed during stage five.
Once you're passed the introductory stages, and have moved on to the Full GAPS Diet, you'll need to avoid the following foods:
- Highly-processed foods in packages and tins
- Refined carbohydrates
- Foods that contain preservatives, artificial colors and chemicals, etc.
- Temporarily eliminate fruit, honey and nuts if you experience yeast overgrowth.
- Specific beans, whole grains, condiments, etc.
2. Supplementation Protocol
Working with a qualified practitioner is required to determine your supplement regimen. There are some "essential supplements" provided by Dr. Campbell-McBride.
- Essential fatty acid
- Vitamin A
- Digestive enzyme
- Vitamin and mineral supplements
3. Detoxification Protocol
It's recommended that you support your body's natural detoxification system through "light methods," which include:
Is It Healthy?
We really don't know. There is no published, peer-reviewed research on the GAPS diet and its efficacy to heal our guts and brains, and ultimately, treat the variety of conditions it claims to.
Risks of the GAPS Diet
Nutrient deficiencies: This diet can last for more than two years and it requires a huge overhaul on your diet, eliminating many healthy, nutrient-rich foods. This puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies. This may be mitigated by the supplement regimen you take but the risk is still great.
Food-borne illness: In one of the stages, raw egg yolks are recommended. This puts followers at risk for salmonella and other bacterial infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Make sure your eggs are pasteurized to reduce the risk.
Potentially high in saturated fat: The diet is heavy on meats and animal fats, which can be high in saturated fat, which can have a negative effect on our cholesterol levels.
An overall concern is that the diet lacks substantial research to back its claims while requiring a significant commitment with significant potential risks.
Should You Try It?
If you're still compelled to try the diet after reading through the potential risks, consult your doctor first.
If your doctor supports your decision, work with a registered dietitian who specializes in this area. This is a difficult diet to navigate and a dietitian will work closely with you to make sure you're following it correctly and will help you avoid deficiencies along the way.