My Beef With the GAPS Diet Author—a Post So Major That It Probably Should Have Subheadings

When I blogged about Martin doing well on the GAPS diet, the brainchild of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, I wrote: “I’ve written a lot about GAPS recently, and I’m also working on a post about how I don’t buy into everything that Dr. Campbell-McBride says.”

All this time, you’ve been wondering, What is it? What does Dr. Campbell-McBride say that my blogger doesn’t buy into?

(You’ve been wondering, right?)

Well, it’s time for that post I’ve been working on.

I’m vegan. I went vegetarian when I was 16 years old, and vegan just after I turned 22. I did it out of concern for animals and the environment, and I stuck with it for the health benefits. I’m 42 now, so that makes me vegan more than two decades. All in all, I feel . . . fit. I am 5’6”, I fluctuate from 125 to 137 pounds. I exercise. I have strength and endurance levels at least commensurate with my age. The two major illnesses I’ve suffered, measles at age 12 and dysentery at age 21, both occurred before I became vegan (and were unrelated to nutrition, as far as I can tell).

I was surprised to discover that Dr. Campbell-McBride, in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, ADHD/ADD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Depression and Schizophrenia, writes off veganism as incompatible with long-term health, without explanation. She says that veganism is unhealthy and moves on. I figured that Dr. Campbell-McBride must have more than nothing to back up her opinion of veganism, so I headed for her website and blog. I found a post titled “Feeding Versus Cleansing,” dated 27 March 2012, in which she states, “Purely plant-based diets (vegan diets) are inappropriate for human physiology long-term; they can only be used as a temporary cleansing procedure.” (Disclaimer: I started writing this post in July. I know, I know—it took me a while. Life gets in the way. When I finally got around to publishing my post, I discovered that Dr. Campbell-McBride’s 27 March 2012 post had been removed and replaced with a recycled version, by the same title, dated 15 August 2014. The two posts make the same points; for wording and quotes, I am relying on the 27 March 2012 version. I have it printed out and can post it if anyone is interested in the original.) According to Dr. Campbell-McBride, plant foods cleanse, but by and large, they do not feed/nourish humans. A vegan diet benefits, say, a cancer patient whose body needs cleansing and resetting. Ultimately, the patient, like all humans, must return to eating animal products in order to be fed properly.

Okay.

As I see the issue, Dr. Campbell-McBride makes statements about veganism that sound good in theory but seem unsupportable in evidence. I have read multiple studies concluding, based on evidence, that long-term veganism—lifelong veganism, not a temporary or “cleansing” procedure—when done properly (not, for example, cola and potato chips) makes a person healthier, blocks disease, and adds years to life. The China Study is perhaps the best-known assessment of why veganism works. Dr. Campbell-McBride does not offer any study to counter those empirical conclusions. Indeed, other than one bizarre example asserting that a young woman ate a healthy vegan diet but nonetheless stopped menstruating and wasted away, Dr. Campbell-McBride doesn’t provide even specific examples. She writes assertively about body processes. She doesn’t back her assertions up with evidence.

(Here, I can even provide Dr. Campbell-McBride with a counter-argument: Do the studies on which I rely compare vegans, who tend to be health-conscious and food-aware, with meat eaters in general? Because “meat eater” is the default position in most Western societies, and the average Western eater tends to rely on processed junk instead of real, fresh food. So maybe the key difference in studies of veganism is between “conscientious” eaters and “if it tastes okay, it’s going in” eaters? I would appreciate a study comparing conscientious vegans with conscientious meat eaters. Scientists, have at it!)

I try to be open-minded. If I were to ignore the studies evincing that long-term veganism is the healthiest choice, I could accept Dr. Campbell-McBride’s claims about animal flesh feeding and building humans. Like I said, her statements sound good in theory. But even if I give her credit for the meat argument, she parts even from common sense with this argument: “Mother Nature took billions of years to design the human body; it is an incredibly intelligent creation! As the natural foods on this planet have been designed during the same time, your inner body intelligence knows their composition, and knows what foods to choose for particular needs.” These natural foods that the body requires include “dairy on a daily basis.”

How could it be that a human’s inner body intelligence knows to choose dairy? Milk is indeed a natural food designed by nature over billions of years—designed for a growing calf. That’s right. Cow’s milk has the exact balance of nutrients and proteins that a baby cow needs to grow big. Human milk, what we call breast milk, has the exact balance of nutrients and proteins that a baby human needs to grow big. Cow milk is for baby cows, not grown cows. Human milk is for baby humans, not grown humans. Humans are the only mammals forcing milk into themselves beyond infancy, and to add to this unnatural state they are using the milk of another species. What has that to do with nature? If I were ever to buy into more of the Campbell-McBride theories and start eating animal products (I have no plans to do this), I certainly would not include nature’s baby cow manna.

In addition to asserting that nature has made animals into the perfect food for humans, and apparently that cow milk does double duty as perfect for both calves and for humans of any age, Dr. Campbell-McBride appeals to the senses:

Mother Nature . . . gives us senses of SMELL, TASTE, DESIRE for a particular food and a sense of SATISFACTION after eating it. So, when your body needs a particular mix of nutrients, it will give you a desire for a particular food, which contains just that right mix; this particular food will smell divine to you, and you will feel satisfied after eating it.

And she writes:

[B]efore putting anything in your mouth smell it: [I]f it is the right food for you at the moment, it will smell very appealing. If it is not the right food, it will smell repulsive.

I feel fine now. So after reading Dr. Campbell-McBride’s work, I ask myself: If I eat animal products, could I revolutionize my life? Could I go from “fine” to “friggin’ awesome,” from “fit” to “Wonder Woman”? Could I break 200 pounds in my CrossFit deadlift? Out of curiosity, I’ve put Dr. Campbell-McBride’s “senses” and “body needs” theory to the test repeatedly. When I prepare meat for Martin, I stare at it. I take a deep whiff. I ask my body, “Do you need this? What is your desire?”

Then my body says, “Eeew, no.” Every time. Except when my body says, “What is that? Dead chicken? Back away, quick.”

My body doesn’t seem to be telling me to eat meat.

My own health notwithstanding, what about the fact that I bore a child who developed autism? Could my diet have contributed to Martin’s immune deficiencies?

I am willing, maybe too willing, to blame myself for my own missteps that I believe contributed to Martin’s autism. I’ve owned many of them, right here in this blog: Allowing Pitocin at Martin’s birth, which snowballed to an epidural and unplanned C-section. Not fighting hard enough when newborn Martin, despite an APGAR of 9/9, was whipped off to the NICU for antibiotics. Vaccinations. Living during pregnancy in a home under renovation. Et cetera. But try as I might, I have been unable to find any credible evidence, clinical or anecdotal, linking maternal veganism to autism. If any reader has evidence of such a link, don’t be afraid to forward it to me. I can take it.

I hope by now you’re asking yourself: If this blogger has concluded that some of Dr. Campbell-McBride’s assertions are unsupported, and even contrary to logic, why is the blogger’s son following Dr. Campbell-McBride’s signature GAPS diet? Here are my top three reasons:

  1. In my reading—and I’m no scientist—Dr. Campbell-McBride seems to have a better grasp on restoring a gut than on maintaining a body with a healthy, well-functioning gut. Her mistaken exuberance in carrying her “healing” theories to the “already healthy” realm doesn’t mean I have to assume that the “healing” theories are wrong.
  2. The GAPS diet is in line (not exactly, but some similar properties) with other restricted diets, such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet or the Feingold diet, that help with gut-related auto-immune issues. I can’t find any widespread studies, i.e., real science, so I troll parent groups on-line for other parents’ experience. Most report improvement on these diets.
  3. I’m an empiricist. I’m giving the GAPS diet a try with Martin, and it seems to be helping his gut and overall functioning. Several years ago, when we cut gluten, soy, corn, and most starch from Martin’s diet (he already was dairy-free), I consulted a mainstream nutritionist and provided her with a week’s worth of menus. She confirmed that even on a very restricted diet we could meet Martin’s nutritional needs. I have some worry about long-term use of the GAPS diet—ammonia build-up, carnitine’s effects on the arteries, that sort of thing—but Martin will not be on the GAPS diet forever. When his gut is sealed up and in good working order, I will experiment with taking animal products back out of his diet. Already I have him down to one serving of meat per day, excluding broth.

In sum, although I plan to have Martin on the GAPS diet, or some modified version thereof, for the foreseeable future, I think Dr. Campbell-McBride is wrong about veganism. (As an aside, I also think that if the whole world started eating GAPS, the environmental consequences would drive us to extinction quicker than we’d like.) My argument having been made, allow me to end with perhaps my favorite statement from Dr. Campbell-McBride’s blog post, at least as pertains to me:

In the clinical practice we see the degeneration of the brain function in people on purely vegan diets and other poor diets: first the sense of humour goes, the person becomes ‘black-and-white’ in [his or her] thinking and behaviours, the sharpness of the mind goes, memory suffers, depression sets in and other mental problems follow. These are all the signs of a starving brain.

Oh, dear. You know now that I’ve been vegan more than 20 years. Is Dr. Campbell-McBride’s parade of degenerative conditions knocking at my door? Adrian, my husband, does complain that my sense of humor tends toward the “Teutonic.” That, however, is not my diet’s fault. Blame the genes: I actually am German. I’m rarely accused of black-and-white thinking; it’s hard to believe that a black-and-white vegan could support a son on the GAPS diet. As for sharpness of the mind, you readers are inside my head, almost daily at this point. How do things look in there? Dull, or sharp? Memory—meh, it’s not fabulous. But I am in my 40s and, more often than not, sleep-deprived.

That brings us to depression and “other mental problems.” Maybe the greatest testament to my brain’s fitness is that—despite having a child with autism, and the daily grind to recover him, and all that we’ve given up to make recovery possible—I am not depressed. I am optimistic and hopeful. Heck, isn’t that a bitty miracle? And if you’re wondering if I have other mental problems, go ahead and ask Adrian. He probably knows me best at this point.

No, wait. Do not ask Adrian about my mental problems. I have a feeling that is not a good exercise within any marriage. Just trust me instead. I promise, I’m reasonably sound.

Reasonably.

I promise.

The kid eats meat. Me? Not so much.

The kid eats meat. Me? Not so much.

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18 thoughts on “My Beef With the GAPS Diet Author—a Post So Major That It Probably Should Have Subheadings

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  4. Hi, and bravo for the very interesting article. You bring up some valid points, namely the question of whether one diet fits all. Apparently, it doesn’t; ultimately, we are all different and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for his neighbour (in your case, what works for your son doesn’t necessarily work for you). In fact, I think Dr Campbell-McBride does say somewhere that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”, but yes, aside from that statement it appears that veganism is viewed as a temporary ‘cleanse’ in her eyes.
    I know the whole ‘Blood-Type Diet’ has been debunked on the basis of a lack of scientific evidence, but to my mind this still seems to be the most logical explanation for why two people in the same family can do well on altogether different diets.
    I have personally experimented with numerous dietary trends, and my mother was a vegetarian for several years before having me, and she raised me as a vegetarian, and then added fish to my diet in the first few years of my life during which, apparently, I was super healthy – no trips to the Dr’s; perfect health. But, later in life (early 20’s) – now a full-on vegan – I experienced a number of auto-imune symptoms, and adopting more of a paleo type lifestyle in my late 20’s after a miscarriage proved to be highly (and I mean “highly”) beneficial in restoring my health and well-being. It’s such a tricky topic. I hate that animals suffer on account of humans. I loathe the industrial dairy industry with all my being. I avoid buying leather or any kind of animal-derived product. I have spent most of my life saving strays and working with animals, and yet despite having thoroughly enjoyed my vegan experience – preparing really fun, really healthy ethically sound meals, and making sure my diet and lifestyle were well-rounded, balanced, unprocessed, and despite not caring much for meat in general (I’m not exactly the girl who craves a beef burger when I’m out with friends), I found veganism to be absolutely detrimental to my health (allergic flare-ups and eczema, severe weight-loss, hormonal imbalances, miscarriage, extreme fatigue, the list goes on.). It’s so sad, but following the GAPS protocol, and adopting what I can only compare to a slightly more ‘vegetarianized’ form of paleo really works for me, and as you can imagine, I can only find solace in the fact that I am more useful to the animals I work with and care for alive than dead. One could argue many things against that type of reasoning, but it is the only thing that has helped me to be ok with a diet that really does serve my health. I envy those who can thrive for years on a vegan diet, and I can only hope that one day the mystery of why one diet works for one person and not for another.
    Thank you for reading me, and good luck to you and your son. 🙂

    • Hi Christelle! Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for sharing your experience. I read it with interest. Can I follow up with a few questions? First, why do you think a vegan diet didn’t work for you, i.e., what was it that your body lacked (and needed) that you now get through animal sources? Second, what does your diet look like today, i.e., what is a “vegetarianized” form of Paleo? Third, you mentioned a miscarriage (and wow, being beneficial to restoring your health and well-being—if you are comfortable doing so, please write more about that); did you have a later full-term pregnancy, and is your child vegetarian? I’m posing these questions out of genuine curiosity. I’m always trying to fit more pieces into this puzzle that is nutrition.

  5. My sentiments exactly. The GAPS Diet/SCD is good for most with gut issues. These maladies have also been successfully treated at The Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida. Dr. McBride is also using the GAPS diet to extrapolate the supposed benefits of a high fat, high meat diet, when all the studies point in the opposite direction – Blue Zone most recently. And while most of the people were not vegans or vegetarians, there intake of animal protein was very low. The protein/dairy myth also comes into play. No one could argue that a poor vegan/vegetarian diet is disastrous but that is not what most responsible people practice. She clearly has no awareness of all the serious athletes, Olympians, bodybuilders, etc. that are practicing raw vegans, vegans and vegetarians and have been so for decades. She needs to look at Dr. Fred Bisci in Staten Island, NY, who at 86 could run rings around her and her bone marrow. Let us not forget that for all her good work and dedication, she is still an allopathically trained physician and an Englishwomen, ergo bangers and mash! I have experimented with many different diets and was a raw vegan for 13 years. I was a bodybuilder as a teenager ( I am 63 now ) and as long as I worked out, I did not loose muscle mass or my mind. I continue to eat a plant based diet, much raw and fermented foods with a small amount of fish or chicken now and then. Your statement regarding what one craves for is true. I can’t say that I ever craved liver in any form. Give me a mango or wild blueberries any day! I cooked professionally in NYC over the years and had to prepare steak tartare by the truck load. I will never understand the attraction. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It sounds like we are coming from the same place. I think, when it comes to veganism, Dr. Campell-McBride is full of beans, just not literally. I also worry that, in many of my autism recovery groups, I see a demonizing of veganism, and this idea that it should be standard practice to eat meat every day. The pendulum swings wide, without much in the middle. Bottom line: I can see the value in occasional meat—I don’t think it’s necessary, for a healthy person with a functioning gut—but I absolutely cannot understand the fascination with dairy products. We are the only mammals who consume milk beyond infancy, and then we take the milk of other species. What the what?

  6. I just wanted to reassure you that being vegan didn’t cause your sons Autism. Me and my friend both ate our fair share meat during our pregnancies and both of us have children on the autistic spectrum. I can’t tell you if it was the environmental toxins or if it was the vaccines (although we have had bad reactions to them), but I can tell you that diet has played an enormous role in improving my child’s condition. She had a life expectancy of 2 years and if it weren’t for changing her diet (against doctors orders), I feel, we wouldn’t be celebrating her 7th birthday this month. We have been vegan for ~6 yrs now and have fallen into convenience eating rather than conscious healthful eating. I came across your article as I was looking to further improve our diets. We started our dietary journey slowly removing grains, trying a paleo approach, with no improvement. Then, we reintroduced grains and removed dairy, got some relief and finally removed all animal products and saw tremendous improvement. At the beginning of our vegan journey we focused on an 80/20 diet (80% fruits & veggies and 20% grains & proteins). We have become very lax in our ways and have had some problems arise so, here I am trying to find ways to adapt and change. I guess I’m hoping to find some kind of veganic/paleo hybrid type diet to help our menu plan. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to write the book on that one.
    Keep your head up, your constant search and adaptation is the sign of a great parent.
    Life is a journey…Journey on!

    • Heidi, thanks so much for sharing. I can’t tell you how well I understand the pitfalls of convenience eating; I fall into that trap all the time, for myself. That is, Adrian is pescatarian, and as you probably gathered from the post, our son eats a super-clean diet but one that includes meat and fish. I cook well for the both of them, and my needs come last, and often that means convenience. I’m trying hard to remember to focus on myself, and in any event, my commitment to veganism remains strong. I believe that, for persons of healthy digestion, veganism is the best choice, for personal health and the health of the planet. In any event, your comment brings two topics to mind. First, a couple days ago, I read this interview with Allen Campbell, the personal chef to Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen: http://www.boston.com/sports/football/patriots/2016/01/04/meet-the-chef-who-decides-what-tom-brady-eats-and-what-definitely-doesn/gERAd0pkpmuELDZztIA56K/story.html. You may also find it helpful. Second, you’ve reminded me of an earlier comment on this blog to which I meant to respond but have not done so. (Topic: veganism. What a surprise.) Thanks for bringing it back to mind. I think I will draft an entire post in response. Check back to this site in a few days!

  7. Hey! I just found this article by looking up gaps vs vegan diet. I was doing gaps for about a month recently and initially felt good. But a month in I couldn’t Goto the bathroom, was very depressed and moody and felt I was just eating too much animal products. I got diagnosed with celiac disease at the end of December and I have tried doing gaps before(only 6 weeks) and remembered good results. It seems funny though that this time it didn’t work as well. Actually even the first time I did it I only lasted 6 weeks becaus I didn’t feel right eating that way. I have gut issues for sure and I’m always aggressively working on them. Both times I quickly resorted to veganism afterwards. Then of course I ended up back on a sad before finding out I had celiac and again was in search for the right diet. I have gone back and forth with veganism for a few years just never stuck to it long enough. My mind body and soul tells me it’s the right way to go. It been 4 days on a whole foods vegan diet and I feel great! My stomach pain has subsided(I had a strong feeling it was from too much meat) and am going to stick with this permanently! Dr. Campbell means well but even as I read her thoughts on veganism in her books I just didn’t agree. I have always believed it is th healthiest, kindest lifestyle there is. Not to minion we can save the planet one person at a Time! Just wanted to mention that and say thank you for this article! I’m excited to fully me race veganism!

    • Sara, good for you on continuing the search for the best diet! I know how hard it can be. It sounds like your gut is telling you the way to go, in more ways than one. If you read a little more in this blog, you will see that I have my son (who’s recovering from autism) on a quasi-GAPS diet and eating some meat, though nowhere near as much as Dr. Campbell-McBride seems to recommend, and no dairy products at all. I’m looking forward to the day my son’s gut is healed, when I can encourage him to join me in a healthy vegan diet. I really do think it’s best for humans, animals, and the planet, and after 22 years of veganism, I have no plans to change my path. Make sure your diet includes plenty of fats, and a variety of foods, and you should do fine. 🙂

    • Hello Sara, as a person who was on GAPS for 2 and a half years, and found much peace and relief through it, I well know what is commonly referred to as “GAPS constipation.” I believe that it had to do with the shifting and rebalancing of my gut flora. Because within a month or two, it went away, never to return. This is a common GAPS experience. I ate the same amount of meat and well-cooked veggies before, during and after. It sure was an annoying phase! But then I got through and was done. I actually experienced more gut symptoms including constipation while on the high-raw, mostly plants-based diet.

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  9. Thank you so much for this post. I have raised my family the last 7 years on a plant-based/and raw/vegan diet and we have all seen great health benefits. In 2008 I had inflammation in my joints which pointed us initially to raw and vegan and after about 9 months all of those symptoms cleared up and remained that way for years. Only recently have I been having some inflammation again and feeling I need to heal my gut, but have had that same feeling that meat and dairy are Not the way to go for me. Plus, I never seem to see the research on what the gaps diet is doing to the heart. My father-in-law passed away at 49 because of heart-disease and we have been health conscious since that time (2006). How can I believe that adding meat, eggs, and dairy will not clog my arteries and undo all the good I’ve put in the past years?
    As a very religious person, I feel the God gave us the plants first for a reason and meat came later as a last rescource. I was grateful to find that others still feel that plants are best and I had a few good laughs reading and completely agreeing with you, We all have our own “health journeys.”For our family of 8 we plan to stay plant-based, juggling in and out of the grains and night-shades are other issues we have to figure out. Best of luck to you on your journey. Again, thanks, for sharing and keeping hope alive in us vegans being bombarded by so many voices.

    • Angela, well put! In my mind, raw vegan living is the cleanest and healthiest for anyone with a healthy gut. Animal protein does seem like “dirty” energy, compared with “clean” energy from plants, and I hope that once my son is healed, I can return him to veganism. As for the religious aspect, I always find it troubling when Christians cite Genesis 1:28 as justification for eating animals but ignore Genesis 1:29: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’.”

  10. Hello. It was very interesting reading your post, thank you for sharing your perspective and experiences. I was hoping you could give me a bit of advice. I have been vegan for approximately 12 years, my children and partner also eat a vegan diet and everyone is very healthy and happy. Except me. I have had digestive issues for the last 6 years (since I turned 30) with constant bloating, pain, sluggishness, headaches and fatigue. I have had a gastroscope, colonoscopy, blood, stool and breath test and the only diagnosis I have received is a “possible” SIBO issue. Which is frustrating. I believe my mother has similar issues though she is un-diagnosed.

    I have been given a SIBO/FODMAP combined diet to try for a minimum of two weeks without any real additional advice. As a vegan, the limited list of allowed foods is very restrictive but I do feel slightly better on it, but still not symptom free. The next step is supposed to be GAPS diet but I can’t see how this can work for me as I feel very strongly that I can’t return to animal products. The thought of it makes me feel sad, sick and a little anxious, as it goes against everything that I believe and, like you, meat repels me.

    I struggle to find information that discusses vegan digestive issues and your post and your experiences are the closest I have come to a perspective that somewhat reflects my own. Are there any articles, books, blogs or websites you can suggest that I might find information to help me move towards a solution? I feel quite alone in this very confusing situation and would appreciate any advice.

    Thank you so much for your time.

    • Hi Rosalyn! The short answer is that I don’t really have many resources that discuss vegan digestive issues. Without ANY authority or empirical evidence, I wonder if there might be relatively few such resources because practicing vegans tend to be less burdened with digestive challenges than those who follow other diets. (You excluded—bummer!) My first question would be what type of medical team you are using? Do you see a more allopathic physician, or an integrated/holistic practitioner? Maybe a more whole-body solution is needed? Also, if no written resources exist, perhaps you could find a vegan nutritionist who could work with you on tweaking your diet to respond to your body’s specific needs. For example, I have a friend who can’t rely too heavily on legumes, at least not without pre-soaking before cooking. What area of the country are you in? There are usually local resource groups that might point you in the right direction. Please follow up on this board, or at FindingMyKid@yahoo.com—I’d love to know where you wind up.

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