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Part 2: What is the GAPS Diet? Healing the Gut to Heal Neurological, Psychological, Digestive and Autoimmune Disoders

Nov 25 2013

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the basic rationale behind Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s GAPS Diet and how it aims to heal the gut, and in turn, how it can treat a range of symptoms and disorders. But what do you actually do and eat on GAPS?

What GAPS is like, generally speaking

For an overall picture, I’ll give a little summary here (with a glimpse into the practical realities). The GAPS book describes the protocol in great detail and Dr. Natasha answers readers’ questions on a FAQ Page. I found a lot of good info here that I wouldn’t have found in the book alone. There’s also a GAPS Guide book, which I have not read yet. I encourage you to read these resources slowly, but thoroughly. They are full of information I can’t begin to explain. Just take your time, and breathe, and take more time to see how it sits with you.

GAPS is a challenge to take on and having support will go a long way. Lots of people take advantage of online GAPS communities or follow bloggers who have been on GAPS, while others will be much happier if they work closely with a certified GAPS Practitioner (for the record, I’m not a certified GAPS Practitioner). I work with clients who are on GAPS with a physician’s oversight, primarily through coaching, teaching them how to cook GAPS recipes, and providing menu ideas.

I’ll explain in future posts what GAPS has been like for me, specifically. I think it’s important to share some personal experiences as a blogger from time to time! I’d like to hear more personal stories myself of the ups and downs, and practicalities and problem-solving for people on GAPS.

Cooking all the time

You are going to do most all of your own cooking. As much as possible, you’ll cook your food carefully from scratch at home. It’s essential that you become comfortable finding ways to get these meals on the table or packed up to-go. Unless you have access to GAPS-friendly food from an amazing local purveyor or a loved one who can offer this to you. Kids are blessed to have parents who will cook with love for them. But to truly take ownership of your healing process and to stay within a budget, cooking is your power. There’s lots of GAPS-friendly recipes from Dr. Campbell-McBride and more on the internet, including meal plans (like these from Cara of Health, Home, & Happiness). I have recipes here to share and more to come!

It’s rare that you are permitted anything that comes in a package as most premade foods and canned goods have added sugars, processed salt, starches, MSG, dyes, preservatives, and other problematic ingredients. I’ve purchased a few things outside the home but it’s been limited. Eventually, you may be successful eating out, as long as the kitchen can accommodate. I think exceptions may be made from time to time because you’re going to end up eating out if you’re on GAPS for a long time and can’t always, or may choose not to follow it to a T. Not saying you should go out binging, but trust yourself to handle these situations, leave guilt behind, and remember you can come right back to your most healing foods.

Even as a proficient home cook who values eating locally and seasonally–and one who encourages others to cooks as much as they feel they can–I find cooking all of my own food from scratch pretty difficult. It takes dedication, advance planning, strategy and finding your own rhythm. Most of all, you have to make it easy enough to be tenable. More on this in future blog posts…

What is GAPS? Pt 2 | Homeskillet | Real food feels good

Bye-bye to most starches & sugars

They key to GAPS is removing difficult-to-digest starches and disaccharides (double-bonded sugars) from your diet. People with GAPS symptoms tend to have a terrible time digesting grains, most beans/legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and the like, and sugars. These foods contribute to gut dysbiosis and deterioration of the cells of the digestive tract. Ripe fruit and honey are allowed if they don’t cause symptoms. Technically none of these foods or any of the foods on the AVOID list in the book are allowed until transitioning off the program.

The fundamentals

• High-quality animal meats (including connective tissue, marrow, gelatin, and fats), healthy fats like butter, ghee, and coconut oil, eggs, a large variety of fresh vegetables, ripe and dried fruits, some nuts and seeds, and plenty of homemade bone broth make up the bulk of GAPS meals, provided they are well-tolerated. It’s encouraged that all of these come from organic and pasture-raised sources.

Bone broth is an integral component as it contains the amino acids needed to rebuild the gut lining that are drawn out from gelatin in the bones of poultry, beef, bison, pork and fish, in their most easy-to-absorb form. Soups and stews made with broth should be eaten daily, and cups of broth are taken with meals.

• Unfermented and most commercial dairy products are not allowed. You can make your own fermented dairy like yogurt or sour cream if, or once, you are tolerating dairy. Some cheeses you can buy are OK. Eventually raw milk from a trusted source suits many people.

• Probiotic foods, loaded with beneficial bacteria, are eaten in small amounts with every meal. Examples are sauerkraut, pickled veggies like carrots, cauliflower, radishes and cucumber, spicy kimchi, and fermented dairy like cultured butter and yogurt. Homemade beverages are great too like beet kvass, water kefir, ginger ale and kombucha. These foods and drinks are inoculated with live colonies of bacteria and yeast that find their way into our digestive tract. They won’t stay there forever (unless a lucky farm-reared child was given a hearty upbringing and their healthy gut colonies stayed well established), so probiotic foods can always be a part of the diet, after GAPS. Probiotic foods can have greater concentrations of beneficial bacteria than supplements, but may not have all of the strains isolated in the pills.

GAPS Intro

If a person has had a history of severe digestive problems, such as chronic diarrhea or constipation, it’s recommended to start with the introductory stage, called ‘Intro.’ GAPS Intro is much more restrictive than Full GAPS but promotes quicker healing. It resembles a cleansing diet with lots of healing liquids and limited ingredients, and allows you to slowly introduce ingredients over six stages to see if you have a negative reaction, in some ways similar to an elimination diet.

Some people go on Full GAPS then go through Intro later on. Some people are very successful on Full GAPS alone. GAPS Intro can take just a month, moving quickly through each stage, or it could take longer, maybe even six months or more. Children heal quicker than adults. From what I can tell, the more severe your overall symptoms, though, the more likely going through Intro is going to be needed. I say this with the caveat that everyone is different, and some people whether or not they have major health issues might not do well on a strict GAPS protocol.

People will often experience an intense ‘die-off’ reaction during Intro as bad bugs in the gut are getting knocked out and producing toxic substances. It feels pretty bad, so Dr. Campbell-McBride has tips on how to take it slowly to not experience these symptoms so acutely.

What is GAPS? Pt 2 | Homeskillet | Real food feels good

Eating on Intro

On Intro, you eat foods that are the easiest to digest, like bone broth and bland meat and veggie soups. Soups may have well-cooked small pieces or they may be pureed. It’s kind of like nurturing yourself like you would a baby. There’s basically no fiber at first as fiber is very irritating to people with severe digestion symptoms. Gradually you incorporate probiotic foods like sauerkraut, starting with the juice, and later on to homemade cultured dairy. In later stages eggs, casseroles and stews with herbs appear on the menu. Avocado, olive oil, and animal fats are healthy fats, along with ghee and butter if dairy is well tolerated. Freshly-pressed juices are cleansing in the morning (eaten with fat to slow the blood sugar response) and ginger, mint, and chamomile teas are healing and soothing. The GAPS pancake is a popular item on Intro, made of ground nuts, winter squash and eggs. There’s several recipes in the book for breads and baked goods made with similar ingredients. Raw veggies, then cooked apple, and later raw and dried fruit may enter the picture. You may even get to enjoy homemade sour cream, yogurt and kefir. Once you’ve moved through all the stages and digestive symptoms have dissipated, it’s on to Full GAPS.

Full GAPS is a lot easier

Once you make it Full GAPS, it feels like you can eat anything (even if that’s not true!) because of the variety of ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors is dramatically enhanced. Some exciting options (to me anyway!) are honey-sweetened custards and fruit pies, spicy pickled vegetables, homemade kombucha, a lot of well seasoned dishes, sauces and dressings that include spices and acids like apple cider vinegar and lemon and lime juices… and even an occasional scotch or weak cup of coffee is allowed if a person so chooses. The goal is to stay on Full GAPS until it feels like symptoms are resolved and introducing ‘GAPS-illegal’ foods does not cause a re-occurrence.

Detoxing & supplementing

Detoxification is a big component of GAPS and happens as you remove processed, allergenic and irritating foods, with vegetable and fruit juicing once it’s tolerated, taking hot baths with detox agents like magnesium salts, and with colonic irrigation or with probiotic-, coffee- or baking soda-spiked enemas if needed, as many people become constipated with such little fiber in Intro, or have suffered from chronic constipation over the years. If you will, let’s recognize that bowel movements, whether fulfilling or not, are part of everyone’s lives and the more we feel comfortable talking about it, the more we can lift the stigma surrounding an integral part of our health. I have come to appreciate talking about poop, and I hope that for everyone ☺

GAPS supplements are specialized probiotics, fermented cod liver oil, high-EPA fish oil, and digestive enzymes. Herbs, vegetables and fruits have their own detoxification powers too. Many people will go off their other supplements and medications gradually before starting GAPS, while other people will need to stick with what’s most healing for them. A physician or another GAPS practitioner can help guide those decisions.

Hoping for the pay off

After what’s likely a pretty long time, some trial-and-error, gradually re-introducing foods to see if you tolerate them, lots of cooking and meal planning, perpetual bone broth, and a very hearty dose of patience, resilience and hope, ideally you’ll see significant changes. People may be able to eat foods that used to make them ill. Chronic illness may be significantly improved or even resolved. There can be incredible transformation. I hear of so many stories of children no longer on the autism spectrum after time on GAPS.  While there’s science and plenty of traditional wisdom to back much of the basis of this diet, there isn’t clinical data to ‘prove it’ to those who need to see that kind of research. Regardless, the stories of healing from hundreds if not more, are pretty amazing. It moved me.

I’m still figuring out how to fit GAPS into my process at this point in time. This portion of a what I’d call a ‘healing journey’ has been one of the most challenging times I’ve had thus far. I’m not following the prescribed GAPS protocol exactly; I’m figuring out how to adapt it to my highly individualized and quirky self, listening to what my body is telling me it needs. Dr. Natasha would be fine with this. I’ll share more of my stories here in hopes that it can be supportive to anyone who seeks healing from health issues and from pain. And like most of my work, I do this to show readers how cooking real and traditional foods is one of the many ways we experience health, happiness, and nourishment.

What is GAPS? Pt 2 | Homeskillet | Real food feels good

I’d love to hear how all of this sounds to you! Would you try GAPS or take it on as a family? Does it sound like a realistic program or perhaps like a leap of faith? What would inspire you or stand in your way of trying GAPS? Have you been on GAPS and have info or tips to share?


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