What is the GAPS Diet? Does it really work?
About nine months ago, I began a journey using food as medicine to heal my rosacea, which had been diagnosed a few months earlier, in addition to other chronic issues I've had for decades. My method of choice to attempt to heal these various ailments was the GAPS Diet. I want to encapsulate in this post what the diet is - and isn't - so people can thoughtfully consider whether or not it is something that might help them on their health journey. I'll also share some of the results I've experienced to this point on the diet.
What the GAPS Diet Isn't
We have been socialized in recent decades to look at diets in a particular way. When one hears the word "diet," one often assumes that it is referring to a particular way of eating to reduce weight. I don't want to start off negatively, but I thought it important to point out right off the bat what the GAPS Diet is not. The GAPS Diet is not a weight loss diet. Many people do lose weight on it, but it is not specifically intended for weight loss. There are countless reasons why someone might be hanging on to extra weight. This can range from high levels of toxicity in the body to hormonal disturbances, from gut imbalance to inflammation, and so forth. Our bodies have an innate intelligence and will often show us what is wrong. These signals come in the form of symptoms that can take years and sometimes decades to develop. But, if we pay attention carefully and choose to listen to our bodies, they will usually attempt to tell us when something is wrong. If the root cause of the weight gain is discovered, the GAPS Diet can assist with that and a reduction of weight could be a side effect of the healing process.
What is the GAPS Diet?
The "GAPS" in the GAPS diet is an acronym for "Gut and Psychology Syndrome." It was created by neurologist and nutritionist Natasha Campbell-McBride. Dr. Campbell-McBride created this diet for her son, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. The diet came to fruition out of desperation because, despite being a neurologist herself, Dr. Campbell-McBride took her son to top neurologists in the UK to seek help for his diagnosis. She discovered that the field had little to nothing to offer in terms of assistance to reverse the condition or at the very least guidance to make his life more manageable.
She began to develop a theory connecting neurological disorders and nutrition. This led to her going back to school to study nutrition and she later acquired a post-graduate degree in Human Nutrition from Sheffield University in the UK.
As Dr. Campbell-McBride was treating her son with this diet, she was also helping other families with autistic children. She discovered that many of the parents of the autistic children and their family members had digestive disorders and skin issues including Crohn's Disease, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), eczema, psoriasis, and more. Those who were following the diet with their children also found that their own conditions were improving.
Fast forward to today, Dr. Campbell-McBride's son - who was diagnosed with autism at three years of age - is now in his 20s and living an entirely normal life having experienced a complete reversal of his autism.
The GAPS Diet is a protocol that is intended to "heal and seal" the integrity of the gut lining, which is seen as the underlying issue for a variety of neurological, skin, and digestive disorders.
What Does The Diet Entail?
The foundational elements of the diet contain two very important components: meat stock and probiotic-rich juices. If one or both of these elements are missing, one will not be able to achieve the level of healing that is desired.
The meat stock is made from gelatinous meats, joints, and bones. Meat stock is not to be confused with very-popular-at-the-moment bone broth. Meat stock is not bone broth and this is an important distinction. Meat stock is made from raw meat, joints, and bone which are cooked for shorter periods. The joints and bone are essential because they contain the most important healing elements. Bone broth is cooked slowly for a longer period of time. This process results in higher levels of histamine which can be problematic for GAPS individuals. I learned this the hard way because there is a lot of misinformation out there.
It's important to get your stock straight.
Now that we understand that stock and ferments are the foundational elements, we can proceed to the stages. There are six stages to the diet, the length of which are completely bio-individual:
Stage 1: Meat stock, meat, and vegetables. Juice from sauerkraut and ginger tea (with raw honey, if tolerated)
Stage 2: Add a raw egg to your soup. Yogurt, if tolerated. Continue with the probiotic-rich juice and tea.
Stage 3: Add avocado and scrambled eggs with fried onions. Continue with previous foods.
Stage 4: Grilled and roasted meats can be now added. Freshly juiced vegetables and a GAPS-compliant bread made from grain-free flour. Continue with previous foods.
Stage 5: Add baked apple puree, some raw vegetables beginning with lettuce and peeled cucumber. Freshly pressed fruit juice in small amounts. Continue with previous foods.
Stage 6: Add raw fruits and vegetables. Continue with previous foods.
Full GAPS: Full GAPS is the maintenance phase (though many begin with Full GAPS and go in reverse) of the diet. Meats can be cooked in a variety of ways. A variety of cheeses can be enjoyed now. Vegetables can now be baked, stir-fried, etc. All manner of fruits can now be enjoyed.
Foods That are Not GAPS-Compliant
Here is a partial list of foods that cannot be consumed while on the GAPS Diet:
No unfermented dairy (with the exception of raw milk on Full GAPS, if tolerated)
No starchy vegetables (i.e. potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.)
No refined carbohydrates
This protocol requires a lot from those who undertake it because you have to make virtually everything at home and from scratch. The yogurt, fermented vegetables, and all other foods must essentially be prepared at home. This can be difficult when managing dinners out and get-togethers but, if healing is a priority, it can be done.
Difficult, But Worth It
This diet can be daunting at first because it is very different from the way most of the world eats. I should distinguish that it is not the way most people eat NOWADAYS because most of us eat from an industrialized food system that quite literally strips our food of its nutrition. Our ancestors, by necessity, ate very differently from how modern society eats today. This protocol puts the nutrition back into our food which gives our body the opportunity to heal itself. Here's a shortlist of maladies I've healed so far:
Chronic sinus issues - since childhood (now 90% resolved)
Egg allergy - diagnosed 5 years ago
Raw carrot allergy - developed several years ago
Dairy allergy - since childhood
Rosacea - since just over a year ago (currently 90% resolved)
Nail fungus - since childhood (hands 90% resolved, feet 50% resolved)
Nut allergy - diagnosed 5 years ago
Vision (greatly improved) - developed several years ago
Bloating - since childhood
Weight gain due to inflammation - since about a year and a half ago
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
If you are considering trying GAPS, I applaud you. It can be life-changing and, for me, has been worth all the effort. With that said, we are all bio-individual and there is no one-size-fits-all. In fact, I'm working with a gifted and knowledgeable GAPS Practitioner who has helped me adapt the diet to my needs. This is working for me and I'm beyond grateful for his advice and help. While the GAPS protocol has helped countless people, it is also important to note that it hasn't helped everyone. Only you know your body best.
Healing oneself does not entail just eating the right foods, but also assisting in detoxification, self-care, meditation, etc. I've heard many times during this process that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Boy, don't I know it. I'm doing what I need to do to heal myself for the long term and that will take as long as it takes.