What Is the GAPS Diet?

Rachel Blumenfeld
Broth and vegetables

With so many diets available and more seeming to pop up every day, it can be hard to keep track of what's what. Recently, the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Diet has been gaining in popularity. The purpose of this diet is to remove hard-to-digest foods, allowing the gut to heal and re-balance its bacteria, which may help improve psychological ailments.

The Purpose of the Diet

Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride created the GAPS diet to help treat psychiatric conditions such as:

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia

The diet is supposed to help patients detoxify their bodies, which eliminates brain fog for a better-functioning brain.

The diet is based on the idea that the majority of toxins in the body and the brain come from the gut. Therefore, it reasons, if the gut has the chance to clean and heal itself, there will be fewer toxins in the body that travel to the brain and cause psychiatric illnesses.

How to Follow the GAPS Diet

There are three parts to the GAPS diet: what you eat, supplements, and further detoxification rituals.

Diet

The GAPS diet has two options to begin with, the Introduction Diet and the Full GAPS Diet. After completing the Introduction Diet, patients follow the Full GAPS Diet.

  • Dr. Campbell-McBride recommends starting with the Introduction Diet for those who have severe digestion or neurological issues. For the Introduction Diet, there are several stages to go through over the course of a few weeks. Patients start with only mineral water and homemade meat or fish stock, probiotic supplements, and ginger tea with honey. As they progress through the stages, they eventually add other foods, such as organic egg yolks, unspiced stews, avocado, almonds, cooked apples, and raw vegetables.
  • The Full GAPS Diet is recommended for people who have milder symptoms. The diet consists of eating mainly meats, fish, eggs, fermented foods, and vegetables. Dieters have to be sure not to overeat baked goods made with nut flours and fruits, as too many can be counterproductive to the diet. Campbell-McBride recommends following the full diet for at least 18 to 24 months.

Supplements

The GAPS diet requires significant supplementation to help heal the dieter's gut. One should pick supplements with the least amount of additives to protect the gut from extra irritation. Necessary supplements include:

  • Probiotics - Help heal the gut
  • Essential Fatty Acids - Seed and nut oil blend, cod liver oil, and fish oil
  • Vitamin A - Helps heal the gut, can be found in cod liver oil
  • Digestive Enzymes - Increase stomach acid to help with digestion

Detoxification

Dr. Campbell-McBride suggests that GAPS dieters help their bodies detoxify and cleanse themselves naturally instead of by using intense and aggressive detoxification systems. Her detoxification regimen includes:

Helpful Tips for Following the Diet

Before starting on the GAPS eating plan, be sure to do enough research that you are prepared for each of the stages. Go shopping beforehand so you have everything you need once you start - it can be difficult to locate the organic, high-quality foods you will need, and you don't want to have to hunt ingredients down at the last minute.

To help people succeed on the diet, Dr. Campbell-McBride has come up with a list of tips. These tips help dieters digest the recommended foods better, and include:

  • Combine vegetables and meats at each meal
  • Eat fruit on its own instead of during meals
  • Choose organic foods
  • Make sure you get enough natural fats
  • Drink a cup of bone broth or meat stock with each meal
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Eat fermented foods as tolerated (they may need to be introduced gradually)

If you are just beginning on the diet, you should also be careful when choosing where to start; you may benefit from going through the Introduction Diet before jumping right into the Full Diet. Nevertheless, many people choose to start with the Full Diet until they feel knowledgeable enough about the program and then go back to the Introduction Diet. No matter where you start with the diet, be sure to meal plan and prepare as much food as you can in advance. The protocol is very restrictive, so it's best to plan meals ahead so you already know what you're going to eat when you get hungry.

Finally, remember that it's important to listen to your body. If fermented foods are hard for you to digest, cut back on the amount you are eating and then increase it slowly.

Reviews of the GAPS Diet

The reviews of this diet are mixed. Dr. Harriet Hall, a contributor to the website Science Based Medicine, calls the diet "a mishmash of half-truths, pseudoscience, imagination, and untested claims." Hall is skeptical, since the diet's website claims to cure nearly 80 diseases but has no research to back up its claim. The site also makes many other questionable statements. She notes the site is profit-based; it offers many products including an expensive training course to become a GAPS practitioner.

Additionally, Hall suggests the early stages of the diet may be nutritionally lacking because few foods are permitted. Likewise, since the diet is so restrictive, it may be difficult to maintain.

Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Gerard Mullin agree. They say, "The GAPS diet lacks a clear scientific rationale and is challenging to follow even for those who believe that it may be worthwhile." They do acknowledge, though, there is a body of scientific thought that suggests psychiatric disorders do have a component of gut dysfunction, but there is no research that shows healing the gut will reverse the other disorders.

Despite the medical community's dismissal of the protocol, many people who have tried it have raved about their results, writing they get sick less often and have seen symptoms of autism and ADHD decrease.

Pros and Cons to Consider

To decide whether this diet is for you, balance the positives and negatives and see which factors resonate with you more.

Pros

Pros of the GAPS diet include:

  • Clean eating is always beneficial.
  • People who follow the diet give it positive reviews.
  • It's intended to be temporary, lasting 18-24 months, which is easier to stick to than a permanent plan.

Cons

Negatives of the GAPS diet include:

  • The diet takes a lot of preparation.
  • It is very limited as to what you can eat.
  • The acceptable foods and required supplements are expensive.
  • There is no research to support the diet's claims.
  • It's difficult to maintain when eating out.

Healing the Gut

Whether or not the diet can heal diseases like autism and schizophrenia, there are definite health benefits to following it since there are proven advantages to clean eating, which is the basis of this diet. It might not be necessary, however, to follow all the diet's particular restrictions to see these results. As with any regimen, you should consult with your doctor before beginning.

What Is the GAPS Diet?