GAPS – which stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome – is based on the theory that certain foods cause leaky gut, which leads to toxins crossing the gut barrier and affecting the brain. This GAPS Diet review will go through the entire diet and claims around this way of eating.
The GAPS diet was developed by Natasha Campbell-McBride, a neurosurgeon. She claims that the GAPS protocol healed her child of autism.
There’s no doubt that the brain and the gut are linked. But our knowledge of how and what the gut (and diet) affects in our brain is still emerging. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but it’s about 15 steps too far to claim that we can heal what are currently incurable conditions and diseases with just diet.
Campbell-McBride claims that GAPS – Gut and Physiology Syndrome – leads to an ‘unhealthy gut,’ which causes “all autoimmune conditions (celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes type one, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, autoimmune skin problems, Hashimoto disease and other hormonal problems, etc.), asthma, eczema, various allergies, food allergy and intolerance, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple many endocrine disorders (thyroid, adrenal and other), chronic infections, many neurological diseases and all chronic digestive disorders (such as irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, colitis, etc)”
She also reportedly claims that the GAPS diet can heal bedwetting, eating disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, depression, Tourette’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, and of course, autism.
It didn’t take me more than 3 minutes online to find GAPS practitioners recommending the GAPS Diet for the above diseases/conditions, including kids who have been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and people with cystic fibrosis.
This is not only dangerous, it’s ignorant and irresponsible. You don’t just throw a Type 1 kid on a diet to ‘heal’ their disease, and cystic fibrosis needs management by an entire team of medical professionals. NOT a GAPS practitioner.
GAPS Diet and Leaky Gut.
The term ‘leaky gut’ is often given as a diagnosis by alternative practitioners to account for all sorts of health problems. These practitioners will often talk about undigested food and toxins leaking into the bloodstream from the gut and causing disease.
In reality, increased intestinal permeability is a thing, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it. Does undigested food really leak into your bloodstream? It can, but you’d literally be dying if that happened. Do intestinal junctions sometimes become permeable and release endotoxins into the blood? Yes.
I wrote about leaky gut here, but here’s what you need to know: we aren’t sure whether leaky gut causes illness, or if illness causes leaky gut.
Yes, some people with some of the above diseases and conditions may have increased gut permeability. But is that because of their illness? Their diet? Kids with autism often don’t eat a complete diet. Does this contribute to their gut issues?
I asked Gabrielle Fundaro, PhD, and gut expert, about GAPS. She came out swinging:
The GAPS diet is based on unsubstantiated, reductionist perspectives of mood disorders. Despite strong evidence that the microbiome characteristics seen in children with ASD is actually due to dietary patterns, the GAPS diet book claims that dysbiosis and leaky gut are the ‘root causes’ that can be ‘treated’ with the diet.
The gut does play a part in many things, but science has not established a causative link between most of the diseases and conditions that the GAPS Diet claims to treat.
In fact, any time someone claims that their diet cures or helps an entire laundry list of diseases and conditions – especially those which have previously been incurable – you need to turn around and run the other way. It’s a huge red flag. I can’t make this any more clear.
What is the GAPS diet?
The rationale behind the GAPS diet is to ‘heal’ the gut and rid the body of ‘toxins,’ which will apparently cause resolution of symptoms or healing of the diseases/conditions above.
The introduction portion of the diet is done in six stages, which usually lasts between 18 and 30 days, but in some cases, can last literally years. You can proceed to the next stage once you have a normal bowel movement.
Gaps Intro Diet.
Stage 1 of the GAPS Intro Diet is extremely strict, and unfortunately, can last up to an entire year, depending on how your symptoms resolve (or whether you throw in the towel before that).
In Stage 1, you’ll be eating very little fibre. This means, boiled meat and cooked vegetables (not starchy vegetables like potatoes, though), along with 5-6 cups of homemade broth (you need to make this, and most other foods on GAPS, yourself), and fermented dairy such as yogurt or kefir, and coconut and MCT oils. You can also have tea with raw honey, and raw ACV.
Yeah, that’s it.
In Stage 2, you can add in fermented fish, pastured egg yolks, freshly pressed lemon juice, stews made from allowed meats and fats, and clarified butter.
Getting to Stage 3 means you can add in COOKED whole eggs, nuts and nut butters made from fermented nuts (I have no idea either), fermented vegetables, some herbs, avocado, a larger variety of vegetables like squash.
In Stage 4, you can add roasted meat, baked goods, olive oil, and carrot juice (only if it’s homemade)
In Stage 5, you add lemons and limes, raw vegetables, and cooked apples, among other things.
Finally, in Stage 6, among other things, raw fruit is allowed, along with baked goods – as long as they’re sweetened with fruit juice.
After the GAPS introduction phase, you move on to the Full GAPS Diet, which you’ll be on for around 18-24 months. Buckle up, Buttercup!
Full GAPS has large ‘Foods to Eat’ and ‘Foods to Avoid’ lists, which don’t seem to make any sense to me as an RD. At first, I thought the GAPS diet was some sort of low-FODMAP plan, because some foods aren’t recommended because of their FOS content. Turns out, there are lots of high-FODMAP foods in the ‘Foods to Eat’ list.
Booze like wine and vodka is on the ‘Foods to Eat’ list. Interesting.
You’ll notice that the GAPS diet seems low in carbs, and that’s because it is. Campbell-McBride believes that sugar harms the lining of the gut, starches feed gut bacteria imbalances, and that gluten causes inflammation. So, many carb foods are off limits until they’re reintroduced after the GAPS diet is completed.
Her hypotheses about sugar and gluten, however, seem to be made up.
Sugar doesn’t harm the gut lining (and honey, which is allowed on GAPS, is sugar).
Starches feed gut bacteria, but the GOOD gut bacteria. We want this.
Gluten only causes inflammation in those who are intolerant or allergic to it. The rest of us are just fine to consume it.
The GAPS Diet website states this about Full GAPS:
If your gallbladder has been removed or you suffer from any of the following: constipation, IBS, mild/occasional digestive discomfort, skin issues, or eating disorders, you may find starting with the Full GAPS Diet beneficial.
The mention of eating disorders in any of the GAPS diet content makes me disgusted and angry. Eating disorders aren’t treated with a diet. Neither are a lot of the diseases and conditions that GAPS claims to cure – they require serious medical intervention. People can die from rejecting real medical help in favor of a diet.
I shudder to think of all the people who have been convinced that GAPS will help them, only to avoid proper medical care because of that.
The GAPS site goes on to say that foods should never be microwaved, apparently because microwaving ‘destroys enzymes in the food.
This is not only labour intensive for followers, but the rationale is categorically false. Enzymes in food are denatured in the stomach anyhow, and when cooking in a microwave, nutrients are often better preserved, as the cooking is more rapid than on a stovetop.
Here’s the Full GAPS tips from the GAPS site.
You’ll see there’s talk about the acid/alkaline theory, which is complete garbage science. Read my evidence-based review of the alkaline diet here.
She also mentions candida, which is a red flag. Gut candida exists, but is more serious than something a diet can fix. Here’s my post about candida and candida diets
There’s something about ‘adrenal issues,’ which, if you have actual adrenal issues, you need a hospital, not the GAPS diet. Actually, that can be said about pretty much every health issue that GAPS claims to heal – these are serious business. Read my post about adrenal fatigue here.
After the Full GAPS phase, followers may reintroduce some foods, like potatoes and dairy. Campbell-McBride recommends ‘live raw milk,’ which most legitimate health professionals do NOT recommend due to risk of listeria.
GAPS Diet supplements
The GAPS Diet supplement store on the GAPS site is like a woo woo supermarket of pseudoscience.
There’s diatomaceous earth, which is basically clay that’s meant to be eaten for ‘detoxification.’ There is absolutely no reason for anyone to eat clay, especially to ‘detox’ the body.
There are all sorts of digestive enzymes (useless for most people), probiotics, and essential oils.
There’s $74 algae bath that ‘detoxifies’ you while you soak. Utter malarkey. Or how about a $35 bottle of cow colostrum for your immune system?
I feel like you can tell a lot about a diet by the supplements it sells. In this case, the supplements are consistent with the messaging around GAPS: it’s pseudoscientific nonsense served up with a side of false hope.
Here’s why I don’t recommend the GAPS Diet.
I mean, I don’t recommend anything based on anecdote and pseudoscience, especially to treat serious illness. First and foremost.
GAPS is extremely restrictive. A lot of the restrictions in GAPS are completely unfounded and/or contradictory.
It can cause nutrient deficiency and weight loss in populations that may already be high risk for these things (with negative consequences). ASD and eating disorders are only two examples. I’m going to come right out and say that if your kid’s ASD is healed with diet, consider that they may not have had ASD in the first place.
GAPS is time consuming and privileged. If you’re working full-time, you may find it challenging to make all of your own food and condiments. Who has time to make their own mayonnaise and ketchup? Or the money to buy raw organic cream and oils and all the stuff that’s recommended?
It’s based on a theory, not fact. Says Fundaro: The diet has never been formally studied, and until strong evidence is available, it is simply an elimination diet based on debunked or inaccurate theories and anecdotal evidence.
She adds: Not only does the GAPS diet–and others like it–overlook the complexity of mood disorders, it creates false hope while potentially stigmatizing foods and adding a ‘health halo’ to others. Children with ASD often eat limited diets for sensory reasons, and adding additional restrictions could exacerbate their risk for malnourishment. The same can be said for people with inflammatory bowel disease and reduced nutrient absorption.
Diet is obviously a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to health, but telling people that what they eat can ‘cure’ incurable conditions like autism or diabetes is completely disgusting. And the eating disorders thing – I just can’t. Mental illness is not cured with diet, and the fact that this is even suggested is enough for me to say that the GAPS diet is repugnant beyond belief.
GAPS is an elimination diet that may cause some people to experience an improvement in their GI symptoms. This isn’t because of the phased approach or because the diet is special in any way; like any elimination diet, you may be inadvertently removing the offending foods from your diet.
The carnivore diet works in the same way. I don’t recommend that, either.