GUTS! Does the GAPS diet cure autism?


The clean eating world is obsessed with guts! Your guts, my guts, your child’s guts…..even your dog’s guts. The recurring theme in clean eating dietary advice and health claims is that an unhealthy gut = disease. If you ‘cleanse’ your gut, either through diet or a course of enemas you will prevent and, more importantly, cure disease. One example of this sort of advice, and the reason I became interested in this particular area of pseudoscience, is the GAPS diet.

I first became aware of the GAPS diet after reading a blog post by ‘The Angry Chef’, where he dismantled some of the nutri-nonsense claims made by Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley (Ayuverdic tongue scrapers, Biodynamic eggs etc. Let’s not even go there today) and mentioned the GAPS diet being behind a lot of their ‘bone broth’ recipes and food philosophy. It piqued my interest so I decided to google it, and to be honest I wish I hadn’t. I went further and further down the ‘gut flora’ rabbit hole and ended up in a pretty scary place full of baseless claims, pseudoscience, anti-vax and bad science.

Text reading "mind the gap" from a train station platform

The GAPS diet

The GAPS diet was invented by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride after her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. She took matters into her own hands having decided that conventional treatments weren’t helping. GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome and follows the premise that a wide variety of health problems (particularly psychological and behavioural) are caused by an imbalance of gut microbes, or ‘gut flora’. Dr McBride claims that an imbalance in your gut will lead you towards disease, she claims that autism and ADD, OCD, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and many other conditions are all digestive disorders, but offers a ‘cure’ in the form of her diet plan.

The diet plan is complicated and long, it is recommended to be followed for years, rather than your typical ‘fad’ diets which are often crash diets lasting days or weeks, but it isn’t any less restrictive. There are 8 steps to the diet, the first one being the most restrictive. Step one consists of room temperature water, probiotics and bone broth (which must be made from scratch, you can’t use any store bought stocks, they contain all those nasty toxins and stuff). A worrying line in the introduction to the diet refers to side effects when introducing new foods. It states that if you experience black, sticky diarrhoea, pain or any other digestive distress stop eating the new food, leave it a week and try again. It is important to note that black diarrhoea can be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding and a possible medical emergency. It should never be ignored, or left for a week! The introduction to the diet also recommends a ‘sensitivity test’ for new foods. Here you place a small amount of the food onto a patch on your wrist and see if there is any reaction…..seems legit.

After the initial stage you can slowly start to introduce other foods, beginning in stage 2 with eggs, but, they must be raw and they must be organic (yummy salmonella), along with homemade yoghurts and fermented fish. I barely have time to make myself a bowl of cereal in the morning, let alone having constant homemade broth, yoghurts, soups and stews on the go all week! And so the stages go on until stage 7 when you’re on the most permissive GAPS diet where some, unrefined starches are allowed.

a cracked raw egg on a black surface with an egg beater in the background

The GAPS diet is based on that classic nutri-nonsense idea of ‘detoxification’ of the body. The idea that our lifestyles and the food we consume are clogging up our bodies and minds, making us sick and fogging up our thought processes. By ‘flushing us out’, these diets can help our body to heal.

It is widely known that the liver and kidneys already do the ‘detoxifying’ bit. It’s kind of their job, and McBride does acknowledge this, but she thinks we need to give our body a helping hand in the shape of a few gallons of meat water, or by starving ourselves, which she believes helps to redirect our bodies energy to fight off disease….

So that’s the GAPS diet in a nutshell……but not a nutshell…because you can’t eat nuts on GAPS……so, in an avocado skin?…….or a chunk of hollowed out cow’s femur? Anyway! There isn’t much scientific evidence of this kind of restrictive diet being able to cure disease, or complex psychological disorders. In fact, there isn’t any evidence. There are no published studies on the GAPS diet and Dr McBride hasn’t produced any research or published anything backing up her claims. It is a dangerous way to go, advising people who are sick to go on such a restrictive diet, but she does, and there’s more.

McBride also believes and claims the following:

  • Children with autism are born perfectly healthy. Abnormal gut flora develops due to diet, and microbes passed from the mother, and makes them ill.
  • Breastfeeding is essential. If you are physically unable to breast feed your child use donated breast milk or a wet nurse. Bottle fed babies are going to develop abnormal gut flora and develop problems.
  • The contraceptive pill has had a ‘devastating effect on gut flora’, she doesn’t explain why.
  • She recommends smearing live yoghurt around and inside your vagina during your third trimester when pregnant to help ‘prepare the birth canal’ with beneficial bacteria. She also recommends doing the same to the armpits and breasts.
  • Big Pharma!
  • You should avoid vaccinating your child until they are around 4-5 years old, and even then, only if the child has a healthy, balanced gut flora.
  • Black elderberry is one of the most powerful anti-viral remedies known to man.
  • Using volcanic rock dust in organic gardening improves nutrition, and if used on a global scale, it would enable the soil to absorb enough excess atmospheric carbon to stabilize global climate change.

The upper arm of a child with a pink t shirt sleeve and a hand holding a syringe to the arm.

As previously stated, there is no published scientific evidence that any of the claims made by Dr McBride are true. The science is shaky and inaccurate. All the ‘evidence’ I’ve seen of the diet working has been purely anecdotal, from people on various forums singing the diets praises and attributing it to their improved health or the health of their child. Which brings me onto my main issue with this, the issue that made me wish I hadn’t investigated all this in the first place. The diet is directed predominantly at children. Children with complex behavioural and psychological problems, the thought of subjecting a child to this incredibly restrictive diet is worrying to me. You are essentially starving your child (albeit for a short period during stage 1 of the diet plan). Even when you reach stage 7 of the diet plan the diet is still extremely restrictive. A healthy balanced diet needs a bit of everything in moderation. Starving the body of sugar for example (unrefined or otherwise) is not beneficial.

The GAPS diet is an extreme, damaging, and potentially dangerous response to a problem that there is no evidence even exists. As with all clean eating fad diets, it preys on peoples’ fears, and offers a solution that seems too good to be true. Unfortunately, it nearly always is.

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

 

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