*I am not a nutritionist or doctor. This post contains references to a specific diet that I have found helpful for my family, but please do your own research and consult your doctor before changing your diet.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that we are currently following the GAPS diet. I wrote a very brief post about this diet when we first started it, but it’s SO brief because I personally didn’t have much experience with the diet yet! (You can read it here.) So, I wanted to give an update about how the GAPS diet is helping us and how I’ve found ways to make it work for our family. First, let’s cover a few basic questions about the GAPS diet since I’m sure some of you have not heard of it!
What is the GAPS Diet?
GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome. The GAPS diet was originally created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. And she outlines the instructions for the diet in this book. She is a doctor with higher education in nutrition and neurology. When her son was diagnosed with autism, she looked for a way to help him via his diet. She discovered that the body’s digestive system, the gut, is connected to brain function. And, this connection affects the whole body. So she created the GAPS diet to help her son heal his gut and, therefore, heal his brain function and the effects of autism.
You can read MUCH more about the GAPS diet here.
The GAPS diet focuses on three main things: healing and sealing a leaky gut, recreating a healthy gut flora by introducing friendly bacteria, and detoxing your gut and therefore, your body. This diet starts with an introduction diet that eliminates all not recommended foods and slowly adds food back into your diet as you track your body’s healing. As you add more things into your diet, you’ll eventually end up with a full list of recommended foods. After doing the introduction diet, many people stay on the full GAPS diet for a long time. And it is recommended that if you eat off of the GAPS diet for some time that you start again with the intro diet and build up back to full GAPS.
The gut-brain connection that Dr. Natasha discovered has helped many people with their ailments, much more than just the effects of autism. Because your brain is connected to every part of your body, the connection of the gut to the brain affects every part of your body. So many people have found healing from numerous psychological problems, eczema, and autoimmune disease to name a few.
Dr. Natasha recommends that people stay on the GAPS diet for 2 years to see healing in their bodies. This diet is not meant to be used forever. After the GAPS diet, it’s recommended to stay on a whole foods, probiotic rich diet for the rest of life, but not the GAPS diet particularly. Though, many families have found that staying on the GAPS diet forever is best for them. It would vary by household.
What Do You Eat on the GAPS Diet?
The GAPS diet consists of stages introducing different foods. When you work up to the full list you can all meats, nuts, and berries, non-starchy vegetables and fruits, and fermented or aged dairy (because the fermentation/aging makes them approved).
Why Did You Start the GAPS Diet?
My experience with the GAPS diet began several years ago. I first heard of the GAPS diet when a friend of mine was able to heal quite a bit from the diet herself. At that time I was following the Weston A. Price diet (you can read about it here) which is somewhat similar to the GAPS diet, though not nearly as strict and healing. I had also read about several mom-bloggers that had done the diet and saw lots of healing in their children.
All of this knowledge came together in my head last year when my daughter was still struggling with eczema. She had had eczema for quite some time at that point and it was always itching, keeping her up at night time. So, we decided to start the GAPS diet last September to help with her eczema. I have also been on the GAPS diet alongside my daughter for two reasons. I do not have eczema that I’m trying to heal, but the GAPS diet has also proved to be helpful with infertility and bearing children. The first reason I’m doing it personally is that I have had two miscarriages in the last two years and I wanted to give my body a chance to heal on this diet. And the second reason is that I did not want my daughter to do it alone! It is a difficult process, especially with the stages at the beginning, so I wanted to be right along with her on this journey of eating.
Our Experience with the GAPS Diet
When we started the diet back in September, it was VERY difficult! The first stages have you only eating meat stock, select veggies cooked in stock, and the meat from making the stock. You really cut out a lot! But, that gave the opportunity for our bodies to detox and start healing our leaky guts with all the nutrients from the stock.
But we got through those first stages in about two months and already saw lots of changes. My daughter’s eczema was almost completely gone after those two months. She was sleeping better and just happier all around. All our work was paying off!
Then after those two months, we didn’t follow the diet as strictly because we were moving across the world to England and it was just too much to do all at once. We did as much GAPS as possible (like drinking the meat stock and probiotics), but we didn’t follow it strictly during the transition to England. I am actually thankful for that time of not following the diet strictly. It gave me a chance to see the effects it had on my daughter’s eczema. It was much worse when we were not following the diet’s rules! And now that we are more settled here in England, we are following the full GAPS diet which is the list of recommended foods (not going back through the introduction stages). With all that goes on in moving internationally, I am just thankful for what we can do at this point. We may do the introduction stages over again at some point soon, but it will depend on my daughter’s eczema. Right now, it is actually doing very well and I’m not too concerned with starting over the introduction stages again.
How We Make the GAPS Diet Work in Our Family
Okay, now that the basics are covered (though feel free to ask me a question in the comments!), let’s talk about how we make the GAPS Diet work in our family. Here are some categories of foods that we make sure to eat and some categories of food that we avoid.
Including Meat Stock
Meat stock is a key component of the GAPS diet. It helps to seal the leaky gut and give the brain the nourishment it needs. I make meat stock at least once a week, if not twice. The easiest way, and what I do most often, is just purchase a whole chicken and use that for the stock each week. You can read the full recipe here. But when you make meat stock, you are not cooking the meat for as long as you would bone broth, so the meat that’s on the chicken is still edible. I then use that meat from the whole chicken for other recipes throughout the week like chicken salad or soup. I will also just heat up the meat from stock in the oven or on the stove top and we’ll eat it with veggies for a meal.
To make sure we get the meat stock in our bodies, we drink it! I know it sounds strange, but it’s actually really yummy to drink with a little bit of salt. I also cook lots of vegetables in the meat stock, that’s a great way to get my daughter to have extra stock (she likes drinking it as well). Soups are also often on our menu because that is an excellent way to use meat stock in a meal. I also replace the water in any recipe for soup, beans, or lentils with meat stock.
Basically, I try to get meat stock in wherever I can! Some days we have it at every meal, some days we drink a cup before bed because I’ve forgotten it throughout the day. We make it work.
In order to heal a leaky gut, you’ve got to have a lot of fat in your diet. In a way, the GAPS diet is similar to the Keto diet in that it is high fats and low carbs. So how do we get our fats in every day? By adding butter, cold-pressed coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and ghee to whatever I can. We eat lots of butter on our scrambled eggs, lots of coconut oil in anything that’s sautéed, lots and ghee with curry. Butter is definitely my fat of choice, I even have it in my coffee. But it’s good to have different kinds of fat in your diet because they all have different nutritional values, so I do try to mix it up on a regular basis.
Including Probiotic Foods
Part of healing the gut and, therefore, healing the brain function, is introducing friendly bacteria to the gut. That means eating probiotic-rich foods! There are many options when it comes to probiotic-rich foods, but the three that I focus on are sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir.
Read my recipe for sauerkraut here. It is the easiest probiotic to make because all you need is cabbage and salt! We include my sauerkraut at almost every meal (though I often forget to get it out for breakfast, working on that one!) The saltiness goes with lots of foods. And if you feel like it doesn’t go well, you can just eat one or two bites on the side. I read recently from the Weston A. Price foundation that “Just two ounces of sauerkraut has more probiotics than an entire bottle of 100 probiotic capsules!”
Needless to say, we eat sauerkraut whenever we can. My daughter likes it for a snack throughout the day as well.
Yogurt is another probiotic-rich food that we incorporate into our daily diet. I currently make it using my Instant Pot (you can read that recipe here), but I’ve also used my crock pot before (there’s a different recipe here for the crock pot). It’s very simple to make as long as you’ve got access to milk and a thermometer.
Yogurt is full of friendly bacteria for your gut. And it is one of the dairy items that is recommended on the GAPS diet because of the fermentation and the nutritional benefits that brings.
We eat yogurt for breakfast with fruit, in smoothies, in pancakes, by itself, with peanut butter, the list could go on. We eat it a lot! You can often use yogurt as a replacement for sour cream. We also eat quite a bit of curry (my husband is from India) and yogurt goes well with those.
A probiotic food that we’ve added recently is Kefir! It’s another easy way to get probiotics in your diet. It is made with milk or water (we make ours with milk) and it’s kind of bubbly, sour, and delicious, at least, I like it! Because I’m new to using it and making it, I don’t have a full recipe post for it currently. But check out this one from the blog Farmhouse on Boone if you’d like to give it a try.
We currently add kefir to our smoothies. Because it is such a strong probiotic, we have only added it into our diets a little bit at a time. I hope to add it in more in the weeks ahead.
Avoiding Processed Foods
Part of the discovery that Dr. Natasha made was that processed foods are much harder for our bodies to digest and are even detrimental to our gut functions. So for the GAPS diet we do not eat any processed foods. What are processed foods? Basically anything that is processed before you eat it (think, made in a factory, cooked and then frozen, etc.).
If you come with us to the grocery store, you’ll notice that I spend most of my time in the produce and fresh meat section. That’s a lot of what we eat! Meat and veggies.
It is actually very simple and an easy change that would be good for everybody, even if you never do that GAPS diet!
Another part of following the GAPS diet is following the list of recommended foods. I recently found this list and it is VERY helpful to have it electronically. But some of the foods that you have to avoid are all starchy vegetables and carbohydrate-loaded foods. That means no rice, wheat, or potatoes. That cuts out a lot!
In order to feel full at our meals without carbs, I add in lots and lots of the approved veggies. We eat a lot of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes (though fewer due to acidity), and brussel sprouts. I still make rice for my husband (he doesn’t fully follow the diet) and if we are eating curry with him, I’ve been cooking a butternut squash for us in place of the rice. It’s actually really yummy to have the squash with the curry!
There are definitely fewer snacks available when you cut out starches, but we make it work as well. A few snacks that we like to eat are dried apricots, raw nuts, apples with peanut butter, boiled eggs, and bananas. If we eat fruit for a snack, I like to add in a nut butter or yogurt so that we are not just getting the sugar from the fruit, but getting protein and probiotics along with it.
I have recently started making sourdough bread again and found that it does not negatively affect our guts at this point. I make it with wholewheat flour and ferment it for at least 12 hours before baking. I think those two things help to make it digestible for us. Sourdough bread is only recommended for the GAPS diet by Dr. Natasha when you’ve been on the diet for over 2 years. But I really like sourdough and it doesn’t seem to bother us, so I make it once a week for our family. Like the kefir, I don’t feel confident enough with the sourdough yet to have a full recipe for you on my blog, but check out Lisa’s here.
Speaking of sugar from the fruit, that is one of the only sugars we can have on the GAPS diet! There is no room for refined sugar on the GAPS diet, so we avoid that completely. Sugar is really detrimental to your gut health (you can read a whole chapter about it in Dr. Natasha’s book. So the only sweet things that we eat are honey (though in a limited amount) and dates. I have cooked and baked quite a bit with honey as a sweetener and I actually like it better now (thought my tastes may have changed from the diet). And though I do not cook or bake with dates, we sometimes eat them in the form of a protein bar (like Larabars).
There are many other items I could cover on what we include/exclude from our diet to better follow the GAPS diet, these are only a few. This gives a good picture of the main things that we do to follow the diet and we’ve seen lots of healing so I will end the list here. There are just two more points I want to cover: managing time on the GAPS diet and organic vs. non-organic foods.
Managing Time on the GAPS Diet
The GAPS diet is one reason why I use my planner so religiously. It takes a lot of planning to make it work! I have to coordinate when to use my instant pot for yogurt (because it takes 24 hours!), when to start fermenting sauerkraut on the counter (because that takes days!), and when to make meat stock yet again. I also have to make sure we have enough veggies along with our meat so that we don’t feel hungry later. Meal planning is essential for following the GAPS diet, you can read my post about that here.
Organic vs. Non-Organic Foods
The GAPS diet is meant to help you detox your body. One of the main ways we get toxins into our system is through what we eat. That is why there is a big debate about whether or not to eat organic foods. You can read more about it on the Weston A. Price foundation website.
For me personally, I would love to eat all organic foods all the time. But that’s just not feasible at this point in my life (grad-student wife, hello!). So I focus on buying organic produce and free-range meat whenever possible. Then, beyond that, I do not worry about it. The reasoning is simple, the produce has no means to detox itself from whatever pesticides have been used on it. Whereas, even a cow that has many antibiotics pumped in and eats pesticide-rich, genetically modified corn still has a stomach and body that helps to detoxify the food. I try to get free-range because free-range animals tend to be happier and, therefore, have better meat. So, if your budget is limited like mine, then focus on the organic produce overall and the organic meats can come second or be avoided altogether.
Even if you only ate food that was not organic but was whole and unprocessed, you’d still be doing a lot to help your gut.
I could go on and on with all the tips and tricks I’m learning. But because this post is getting SO long, I will stop.
Overall, the GAPS diet has really helped us in these last months that we’ve been following it. My daughter is sleeping much better at night and her eczema has improved immensely. I definitely recommend checking out Dr. Natasha’s book if you are interested in trying the GAPS diet for yourself. There’s a lot of information in that first book and she just came out with a second book about the diet that I have yet to read, though I’m sure it’s helpful as well.
Like all diets, the GAPS diet takes a lot of work. And we do not always do it perfectly! My motto is to do GAPS as much as possible while still living a happy and fulfilling life. I feel like we are blessed to have freedom in our diet because my daughter does not have a lethal allergy or deathly complications when we eat differently than the GAPS diet. So we do occasionally have a treat or a meal from a restaurant. And then I load up on probiotics and meat stock the next day.
The GAPS diet is definitely not for everyone, but it really works for us.