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.