Our experience on the GAPS diet

Prompted by a comment to a previous post, I’ve dropped in to detail our experience on the GAPS diet. Briefly, the aim of the Gut And Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet is to heal–really heal–the gut, which can be the cause of so many issues. The diet works in stages, with the introduction stage being quite restrictive; you add in more and more foods with each stage until you reach the “full GAPS” diet, which you maintain for a while (think 2 years). Eventually, you introduce dairy (also in stages), but the GAPS diet does remain gluten- and soy free. The staples of the diet are organic/unprocessed meats and broth, lots of fats, soup, cooked vegetables, eggs, naturally probiotic foods (like sauerkraut), and NO grains, starches, or sugar. After the couple of years on full GAPS, the gut should be healed and you can start coming off of the diet and eating other foods (while still eating healthy and making good choices). Basically, it is not a life sentence and has as its primary goal healing of the gut/digestive system so that all foods can again be tolerated.

Making the decision

I made the decision in January 2012 to do the diet with our three children. Here’s what I was hoping, long term, the diet would do for us:

Me (31 years old, normal mom): reduce stress and fatigue, clear skin, bonus would be to lose 8-10 pounds

Nate (6.5 years old, former autism diagnosis): calm his “can’t-keep-hands-to-himself” tendency, heal food sensitivities (eventually we’ll be eating dairy on GAPS!), broaden his self-limited diet, improve his ability to interact with same-age peers

Lucy (4.5 years old, neurotypical): help with sensory issues

Levi (3 years old, neurotypical): broaden diet, heal any issues that were caused by the heavy doses of antibiotics he had when in the hospital as a baby

Initial observations

About two weeks into the diet, here were my observations:

Me: this diet is easiest for me, since I’m the one who made the choice to do it. I’ve also found I’m an “all-or-nothing person” when it comes to eating: if I’ve chosen to eat very well, then I won’t eat one bite of a banned food. On the other hand, if I’m being lax about my eating, I can eat an entire pan of brownies in one day. I’ve found many of the GAPS foods/recipes delicious, with some fails too (some of the soups). I also don’t mind the taste of broth and drink it fine with each meal (a cornerstone of the diet). For the first few days, I had some definite cravings (coffee, sweets) and felt hungry all day, even though I was eating plenty. The cravings and excessive hunger subsided after about 6 days or a week, though. Honestly, I haven’t been desperately craving coffee like I thought I would be. I’ve lost 7 pounds. I’m still as stressed as ever–actually, maybe more!–which is partially due to the huge increase in time spent in the kitchen these first couple weeks of the diet. That will get better as we move through the stages and add more foods that can be prepared in shorter times. My skin hasn’t changed, but I’m still hopeful.

Nate: unbelievably, Nate is doing pretty well with GAPS! The first two to three days were the worst with him wanting his usual foods (ketchup, gf pancakes, peanut butter) and hating the broth. Then I made boiled (yes, boiled) hamburger patties into which I had kneaded minced carrot, onion, and salt. He loved these, and from then on has been chowing down like crazy: decent portions of broth with each meal, scrambled eggs (introduced on stage 3 of GAPS, which I moved us all to after 5 or 6 days since I was pretty sure no one was sensitive to them), lots of steak, ground beef, and modest portions of cooked vegetables. I’m still sneaking most of his vegetables into other foods. Did you know that you can blend a yellow squash with eggs and make delicious scrambled eggs? Nate has been salting everything quite a bit, but I’m not too worried about that since I bought a high-quality/nutrient-rich salt. As far as behavioral effects, I have noticed a calmer Nate this week; some of that could be from getting over being sick too, though. Another instance that sticks out is when Nate and Levi came to visit Lucy in the hospital: Lucy showed Nate several of the presents she had gotten for being in the hospital (a sparkly Barbie, a coloring book, and more). Normally, Nate would have gotten angry at her having gotten presents but him not; however, he said, “Cool Lucy!” I couldn’t believe it. I know that’s something tiny, but I noticed it.

Lucy: surprisingly, Lucy has been complaining. A lot. She was supposed to be the easy one with GAPS, since she is a great eater. I’m chalking up her complaining to a prolonged recovery from the stomach sickness. She has refused the broth each meal, even though the day before she got sick, she drank cups of it (hmm–maybe her body is associating the taste with the sickness). This morning she did love the breakfast sausage (ground beef mixed with minced garlic, ginger, parsley, cilantro, basil, and salt) and scrambled eggs, though.

Levi: Levi is kind of in between Lucy and Nate as far as success with the diet goes. He has been complaining about the broth and some of the foods, but he has also started eating foods he wouldn’t eat before (cooked broccoli, scrambled eggs). He has been very fussy and whiny, but I think that’s part sickness recovery and part diet.

All three children have been very lethargic. I attribute it–again–partly to sickness recovery but also partly to their bodies adjusting to this new way of burning energy (burning good fats instead of carbohydrates). It could also be “die-off” of the bad bacteria in their digestive systems. I’m hoping it resolves within the next week, but it could be longer.

Observations after one month

Here’s what I wrote after a month:

We’re over a month into the GAPS diet, and I’m pleased overall with how things are going. The children finally got their energy back after about three or four weeks and no longer lounge on the couch all day–thank goodness. They are still eating a CRAZY amount of food. We’re going through two dozen eggs a day!

We’ve moved to stage 6 of the intro diet, which means we can have fruits as snacks (introduced one at a time) in addition to all the other things we’ve been able to have. I also got a nice juicer I’d been saving up for, so we’ve had fun the last couple of days coming up with fun combinations to try (carrot, cucumber, radish, apple, kale, celery, blueberry). Nate isn’t a fan of the juice (go figure), but Lucy and I are loving it. I’ve also reintroduced probiotics (stopped them when first beginning the diet) and cod liver oil.

Here are some of the dinners the kids have loved this week:
– lettuce wrap tacos (use lettuce instead of tortillas, then add browned ground beef w/garlic, tomatoes, and avocado. The boys eat all the items separately.)
– egg scramble with leftover taco meat, green onions, tomatoes, avocado
– steak stir-fry with onions and mushrooms, served with butternut squash fries

Individual progress notes:
Me – I’ve kept off most of the initial two-week weight loss, which is nice. Unfortunately, the diet has not helped my skin at all. I’m really disappointed about that. Otherwise, I’m feeling good, not starving, and mostly enjoying the foods.

Nate – I have noticed some really great things in Nate. First, he is eating a lot of foods that he either would never try or didn’t used to like. Yesterday he ate a big leaf of romaine lettuce with lunch. This morning he had two slices of cucumber with his huge plate of scrambled eggs, hamburger patty (with cauliflower, onion, and carrot mixed in), and guacamole (mashed avocado). Second, Nate has had a huge decrease in hyper behavior. It is wonderful. Before the diet, he had a really hard time keeping his hands to himself, especially when we were getting in or out of the car (he was always pestering Levi). This behavior has now decreased 99%. This improvement alone almost makes the diet worth it!

Lucy – To be honest, I haven’t seen much improvement in Lucy. She is a tough one. I’m still hopeful that her sensory issues and OCD tendencies could calm down.

Levi – Levi has been whiny whiny whiny. Some days I feel like I might scream from all the whining! I think some of his behavior has actually been die-off; perhaps he had more “tummy issues” to resolve than I had thought. He is generally eating the foods well.

Another really nice improvement I’ve noticed in daily life: it is no longer horrible taking all three children to the store. Checking out at the grocery store used to be the worst: children going in different directions, fighting with each other, taking things off the shelves, pushing to “help” load the conveyor, etc. No matter how much preparation I’d give or how many consequences I’d impose afterward, the store was always a nightmare. Now, with the decrease in hyperactivity, they are much calmer. They are able to stand still much better in the checkout line. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but it has really made life much more pleasant.

Starting to have some doubts

After about two months on the diet, I started feeling very “out of it” and foggy: someone would ask me a question, and my mind was blank. I would think of the answer 5 minutes later or something. I just didn’t feel like myself. I mentioned this to our naturopath (the one who initially recommended GAPS), and he said my brain fog was from lack of carbohydrates! What?! So I bought some quinoa and millet pronto after that appointment. Adding nutritious grains back into my diet definitely helped with the brain fog–and was the first step I took in moving away from GAPS a bit.

I talked with our naturopath about the severity of the diet, especially the complete removal of grains. He agreed it isn’t a long-term solution, and we decided I would slowly introduce healthy grains (quinoa, millet, and amarynth) with the children after they’d been on full GAPS for over a month (and intro+GAPS for over two months). This definitely isn’t following GAPS protocol, but I felt like doing two+ months of “hardcore” GAPS was better than nothing, and introducing those few grains while still doing the other GAPS stuff (broth, cod liver oil, probiotics, fat-full meats and oils, eggs, fermented foods) was still very healthy–and would hopefully still achieve the results we’re after (though maybe more slowly).

The final decision to move away from strict GAPS

In late April, after having been on the diet for close to three months, Lucy ended up in the hospital with severe dehydration after what seemed like a one-day stomach virus. No one else in the family got sick, though, and I had my suspicions that her condition was GAPS related–perhaps not caused by the diet but there was a possibility that the GAPS diet made her symptoms more likely to occur.

I decided to back off 100% adherence to GAPS and reevaluate what’s good about it and what I want to move away from.

The good:

  • Going on GAPS has greatly broadened Nate’s diet and improved his eating habits.
  • Whole foods meals–almost nothing processed
  • No sugar–and no ketchup addiction for Nate! Eliminating sugar alone definitely helped with hyper behaviors.
  • Helps me stay away from the “easy fix” meals like peanut butter and jelly on gluten-free bread EVERY day for lunch for Nate
The bad:
  • Completely eliminating all grains, including super healthy ones like quinoa
  • No wiggle room for occasional off-diet treats
My updated philosophy has been to stick with the good stuff from the diet–whole foods meals, no sugar, no easy fix meals every day–but back away from the extremes. I’ve added quinoa into the daily rotation (the boys don’t care for it, so I’ve been mixing soaked/cooked quinoa into other things like the breakfast sausage I make). I am not making every single dish for every single meal from scratch (today the kids had Trader Joe’s packaged roasted seaweed as part of lunch). On Sundays after church, we get In-n-Out meat patties for the kids and one order of fries so they can each have a handful. Fruit is still a between-meals snack, separate from other foods, since it is digested differently. I’m not making Nate drink broth with every meal anymore. I feel like adhering to the GAPS diet with total dedication for three months was a good thing, and now it’s time to back away, holding on to the great things we’ve taken from it.