Comparison of 3 Healing Diets

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a pyramid made of real foods with the words: Gaps? Paleo? Wahls?

Why These 3?

There are many healing diets, but the three featured on this website are GAPS, Paleo and the Wahls Protocol. I chose these three, because they are well known, have had a great deal of success, and are similar in philosophy. Here’s a breakdown on their origins, similarities and differences:

Origins

Headshot of Natasha, smilingThe GAPS Diet was created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, but she credits the Specific Carbohydrate Diet as its inspiration. The SCD Diet was created in the 1950’s by Dr. Sidney Haas and popularized in the 1980’s by Elaine Gottschall, whose daughter’s ulcerative colitis was healed through his program. Its foundation is that a damaged digestive tract cannot break down specific types of carbohydrates (grains, starches and refined sugars) and this leads to an overabundance of harmful bacteria which further irritate the digestive tract, causing further difficulty digesting food, resulting in a vicious cycle. By eliminating these carbohydrates from the diet, the digestive tract can heal, and with it, associated digestive disease.

Like Gottschall, Campbell-McBride was motivated by parenthood, but her child was autistic. There was a chapter in Gottschall’s book that discussed the gut-brain connection. That intrigued Campbell-McBride, and she implemented a variation of the diet with her son, making a few key changes to the protocol (an emphasis on nutrient-dense foods and the addition of a detox program.) A few years later, he was no longer autistic. She had similar success with other patients in her medical practice, and in 2004, she published GAPS: Gut and Psychology Syndrome. It was designed to help not only autistic children, but people with mental illness as well. After publishing the book and seeing it applied successfully for many health conditions, she expanded her theory to the belief that all autoimmune disorders could be healed through the GAPS Diet as well. The GAPS Diet is divided into two parts: The Introduction Diet and the Full Diet.

 

real food pyramid - different graphics of paleo foods in the shape of a pyramidThe Paleo Diet was first introduced in the 1970’s by Dr. Walter L. Voegtlin, but became popularized in the last few years by the publication of books by Dr. Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson, among others. It’s based on the belief that evolution is a slow process, and our bodies haven’t evolved to handle the modern diet. In fact, our bodies haven’t evolved past the hunter-gatherer stage, so that ancient diet is the best for optimal health. This community has two segments: those who follow the diet for weight loss, and those who are seeking solutions to their health problems, although there is overlap between the two groups. Those seeking weight loss often eat a low-carb version of the diet and practice intermittent fasting, as well as intensive exercise programs such as Crossfit. Those coming to the diet for health reasons approach it differently, and the community has developed an autoimmune protocol to specifically help ease the symptoms of autoimmune disorders. The protocol is based on the research of Cordain, and was published for the first time by Wolf in his book, The Paleo Solution. Since then, it has been modified based on the feedback of members of the paleo community with autoiummune issues, and now looks like this. It’s a temporary elimination/provocation diet, where people learn which foods are inflammation triggers for them.

 

headshot of Terry, smilingThe Wahls Diet was created by a physician, Dr. Terry Wahls, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in the year 2000 and within 3 years was dependent on a wheelchair, in spite of following the conventional treatment of chemotherapy and immunosuppressant drugs. Since medication wasn’t halting the progression of her disease, she looked for answers elsewhere and used her scientific background to research the effect of nutrition on her condition. In 2007, she developed a diet that was designed to feed her mitochondria, the units in every cell of the body that provide the energy for nerve impulses. (In MS, nerve conduction is impeded.) After one year on the diet, she no longer needed the wheelchair and was able to bike 18 miles. The diet she created is very similar to the Paleo and GAPS Diets, with one special focus: specific and copious amounts of vegetables, to meet the body’s optimal nutritional needs through food. (The other diets include vegetables, but the Wahls Diet prioritizes them.) The Wahls Diet has 3 levels, to help people transition to healthier eating. Her book, The Wahls Protocol, was published in 2014. The Wahls Diet continues to evolve as she learns more through her own healing journey and the experiences of her patients.

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How are the diets the same?  Where do they differ?

  • All of the diets avoid refined sugar and limit natural sugars.  Raw honey is allowed on all of the diets, in small quantities.
  • All of the diets avoid packaged and processed foods. This is because these foods almost always contain additives, which are disallowed on the diets. Read the boxes and cans carefully, before buying. I’ve learned that the health food store shelves are filled with products that contain additives, falsely advertised as “natural”. Basically, whole foods are best.
  • All of the diets are grain-free. That means no wheat, rice, oats, amaranth, quinoa, millet, barley, buckwheat, rye, spelt or corn (yes, corn’s a grain.) And no foods made with grains (crackers, pasta, breads, cookies, etc.) Here’s a quick link to why. (Note: the Wahls Diet has different levels. The first level is simply gluten-free. The top level is 100% grain-free.)
  • All of the diets acknowledge dairy as a common food intolerance. They handle this in different ways. The Wahls Diet eliminates it. The GAPS Diet eliminates it at first, and then reintroduces it slowly to test for tolerance, starting first with ghee, then butter, yogurt, sour cream, kefir, hard cheese and finally cream. The dairy should always be organic, without additives (which often means homemade yogurt and kefir) and ideally raw. This introduction process is designed to take place over many months, with the understanding that some people may never tolerate dairy. Finally, the paleo community debates the use of dairy. Some paleo leaders say to avoid dairy altogether. Others say that if it’s raw and you tolerate it well, it can be a good source of nutrition.
  • All of the diets either eliminate or limit legumes (the dried bean family). Here’s why. The Paleo Diet eliminates them altogether. The GAPS Diet allows only three: lentils, split peas and white navy beans (because they have the lowest amount of starch), but they must be soaked or sprouted first. The Wahls Diet slowly transitions people away from legumes.
  • All of the diets are soy-free. Here’s why.
  • All of the diets focus on the importance of eating enough fat. Did you just do a double-take? After hearing for decades that fat is bad for you, this takes some adjustment. However, it turns out that the villainizing of fat was based on faulty science. Fat is an essential building block for every cell in the body, while simultaneously regulating hormone production and metabolism. In fact, the brain itself is composed of 60% fat. The type of fat is important however, and all of the diets agree on the recommended ones: fish oil, coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, ghee, animal fats from organic grassfed meats, and the natural fats found in nuts and avocados. In addition, all of the diets care about the balance of omega 3 vs. omega 6 fats, recommending eliminating omega 6 as much as possible, while boosting omega 3, with seafood being the best source of omega 3.
  • Starch controversy:  Root vegetables vary a lot in their starch content, with cassava being one of the highest and beets being one of the lowest. The GAPS Diet only allows those with the lowest starch content: beets, carrots and winter squash, believing that starch feeds harmful bacteria in the body. The Wahls Protocol recommends people reduce their starch intake, prioritizing non-starchy vegetables. Starch advice in the paleo community varies. Some people advocate no starchy vegetables, and others allow for a large list of “safe starches“, believing that when you restrict starches, you aren’t only starving harmful bacteria but beneficial bacteria as well. Science hasn’t yet proven which theory is correct.
  • Eat your veggies. Although non-starchy vegetables are part of all the diets, they’re stressed most highly on the Wahls Diet, where she recommends eating 9 cups of vegetables daily (3 cups leafy greens, 3 cups sulfur-rich veggies, 3 cups colorful veggies). By doing so, you’re feeding your body the micronutrients she identified as being essential to the health of your brain and body. While the Paleo Diet allows an infinite amount of non-starchy vegetables, some people get caught up in the joy of meat-eating and leave the vegetables by the wayside. Wahls tried the Paleo Diet before developing her protocol and while it slowed her decline, her MS didn’t begin to reverse (improve) until she added the 9 cups of vegetables per day. The GAPS Diet uniquely focuses on the fiber content of vegetables. People with digestive difficulties are often prone to either diarrhea or constipation. For those prone to diarrhea, fiber irritates an already inflamed digestive tract. This inflammation can be healed quickly on the GAPS Introduction Diet, where fiber is removed on stage one and slowly reintroduced as symptoms subside. On the GAPS Full Diet, non-starchy vegetables are allowed in infinite quantities.
  • All of the diets recommend nutrient-dense foods: such as bone broths, organ meats, egg yolks, and naturally fermented foods.
  • All of the diets recommend eating organic vegetables and grassfed meat. Since these are healing diets, the goal is to remove influences that are unhealthy for the body, and that includes pesticides in conventional vegetables, and antibiotics and hormones in conventional meat. If budget constraints prevent you from doing this 100% of the time, here is a list of the most important foods to eat organically.
  • The role of detoxification: Both the GAPS Diet and the Wahls Protocol prioritize the diet itself as detoxifying, but also recommend gentle supportive measures such as detox baths, saunas, and removing toxic items from the home. Detoxification isn’t discussed much in the paleo community, except to explain the flu-like symptoms people sometimes experience going from the Standard American Diet to the Paleo Protocol, as their body adjusts to the change.
  • All of the diets stress the importance of Vitamin D. Research is showing that the majority of people worldwide are deficient in Vitamin D, and there is a link between this deficiency and the development of autoimmune disease. Our skin is designed to create Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but most people spend their day indoors and when outside, cover up with sunscreen which prevents Vitamin D from forming. Very few foods contain Vitamin D, and studies show that Vitamin D supplementation doesn’t always equate to improved health. The best way to get vitamin D is to sunbathe 15-30 minutes daily in the summertime.
  • Beyond Diet: The Paleo Movement is a lifestyle that goes beyond diet; its goal is to recapture the health benefits of the lives lived by our ancestors millions of years ago: time outdoors, natural exercise, socialization, time for play, quality sleep, a balanced life. The GAPS Diet focuses primarily on food and detoxification for healing, but she does recommend the health-boosting effects of physical activity in fresh air and swimming in unpolluted natural waters. The Wahls Protocol recommends reducing stress through a variety of means: meditation, exercise, spending time with loved ones, and spending time in nature, as essential supplements to its nutrition program.
  • Lifetime vs. Temporary: Both the Paleo and Wahls Diets are designed to be continued for life. The GAPS Diet is unique in that it’s designed to be temporary (average time of 2 years). Its goal is to heal the gut, and once that goal is accomplished, GAPS has a protocol for transitioning off the diet to a wider expanse of foods. That said, she doesn’t recommend returning to the Standard American Diet, which caused the problem in the first place. The goal of all 3 diets is a lifetime of health.

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