What is the best diet for people with Crohn’s disease? Should you be gluten free? Paleo? Vegan? Raw? Should you follow an autoimmune protocol? Or maybe you should be on the trademarked “Specific Carbohydrate Diet“? What about FODMAPs? I’ve tried pretty much all of these diets (and then some) and I’ve come to the conclusion that the specific diet you follow probably doesn’t matter that much, as long as you do one thing:
Eat more like your great grandparents.
Why is Crohn’s disease more common now?
We don’t know what causes Crohn’s disease (or related inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and other autoimmune diseases), but we do know that its rates have sky rocketed in the last 50 years. Some people juxtapose this trend with the decreased rates of infection disease and hypothesize that there is a connection between the two.
Although the “hygiene hypothesis” has some interesting potential, it is far from proven. After all, you could pair that graph on the right with any number of other potentially related trends over the last 50 years and argue that the correlation proved causation. I’m not a scientist and will leave those arguments to them. All I know is my personal experience as a Crohn’s patient and my self experiments with diet and lifestyle, and from that experience I’ve come to believe that while there may be many co-factors involved in whether or not one actually develops the disease, one key factor is what we eat.
What is different about how we eat today?
And the fact remains that what we eat today is dramatically different than the traditional food diet our ancestors ate a few hundred years ago or even just a few decades ago. For example, we consume dramatically less butter today than our ancestors did 100 years ago and processed vegetable oils were no where to be seen in the diet before the 1960s.
Source: Dr. Stephan Guyenet. The American Diet. 2012.
Of course, that is only one of many changes. Our great grandparents didn’t have the processed foods we have today and likely ate far less sugar and wheat and more vegetables. Those vegetables were grown close to home and without the chemical pesticides and fertilizers we pump on our foods today. Their meat was not pumped full of antibiotics or hormones or fattened up in CAFOs, their milk was raw and whole. They couldn’t afford to waste anything, so they ate organ meats and soups and stews made from the bones. They didn’t have a super Walmart down the street, so they ate produce that was local and in season. To preserve food for winter, they fermented it. They didn’t have artificial sweeteners or preservatives or flavor enhancers or fast food. Food was cooked at home, from scratch, and eaten with family at a table every day.
I won’t over-romanticize it. Certainly their life was difficult and I don’t want to go back in time (I like my indoor plumbing and central heat, thank you very much). I also know that their health wasn’t perfect, but have come to believe strongly that we can go a long way toward improving our health today by combining the scientific advancements we’ve made with adopting some of their healthy eating habits.
I know this because I’ve done it myself.
How have I used a traditional food diet to heal myself?
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1995 and was immediately prescribed drugs and told that what I ate didn’t matter. Over the 18 years that followed I took pretty much every drug in my gastroenterologist’s arsenal and managed OK day-to-day, but eventually needed surgery and ended up losing a big chunk of both my colon and my small intestine after post-surgical complications. After multiple surgeries, my overall health continued to deteriorate, with nutritional deficiencies and severe anemia being my biggest challenge.
Finally, in January 2013 I was desperate and decided to give changing my diet a try. First I did the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), then over the course of a year moved to the paleo autoiummune protocol (AIP) plus low FODMAPs, then just AIP, and finally straight paleo and saw tremendous benefit, which you can read about in this post celebrating my one year anniversary of using food to heal.
Today I have moved beyond a strict paleo approach (though I still use the term to describe my way of eating since it has become a short hand that many people in the mainstream now seem to have some understanding of and is a helpful way to identify myself to others following similar eating styles). I continue to be gluten-free and avoid most grains, and will probably remain so forever since I suspect my system is just too damaged from so many years of an unhealthy diet to ever be able to tolerate even traditionally properly prepared grains, but I do now eat some full fat grass fed dairy and “safe starches” like white rice and am feeling better than ever! My blood counts remain normal, inflammation is low, and my digestion is as efficient as can be expected given the damaged guts I’m working with.
I firmly believe that my dramatic healing has as much to do about what I’ve added to my diet as what I have cut out. And that is where the lessons from our great grandparents’ diets really come into play. That means fermented foods, organ meats, bone broth, grassfed meats, whole foods, seasonal organic vegetables, and much more.
I won’t lie to you. It is hard work to eat like this.
Everything is made from scratch and it takes time and a certain amount of skill and knowledge that I didn’t get overnight. I’m fortunate that I already had a decent grounding in cooking, thanks to my mother teaching me the way around the kitchen at an early age and an enduring interest in expanding my culinary horizons.
What if you need help?
I wish I’d had the guidance of someone with experience when I started my healing journey toward a traditional food diet. Once I started to get healthy, I wanted to be able to be that person for others. That’s why I started this blog! Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or ability to be the personal coach I’d like to be for every one the people who come to my blog or my Facebook page. That’s why I was so excited when I found out that my friend Craig Fear of Fearless Eating was offering an 8 week course on traditional foods for digestion that he is cleverly calling “Fearless Digestion.” Craig really knows what he is talking about… he’s a certified Nutritional Therapist with additional certification as a GAPS practitioner. But even more importantly, he’s lived what he teaches himself.
The course starts with the basics and progresses through everything you need to know to about what to eat and not eat and how to prepare traditional foods. It includes meal plans, recipes, video recordings, live support, and everything you need to be successful including lifetime access to the course archives. Read more about the class here.
Best news of all… Craig has agreed to give my readers a special discount of $20 off. Be sure to enter the code GUTSY20 to get the exclusive Gutsy By Nature discount when you check out.
Whatever you do, please know that you are not alone! If you have Crohn’s disease and want to take control of your diet in the hopes that it helps you heal, I am here to support you. Write a comment on this blog post, send me an email, or connect with me on Facebook. I can’t wait to celebrate your success too!
P.S. Yes, these are pictures of my real grandparents and great-grandparents and other ancestors. The beautiful bride in the center photograph is my maternal grandmother. She’s turning 85 this summer and still lives in her own house and calls all the shots. The young lady on the farthest right of the group picture at the bottom right is my paternal grandmother. Today she is 97 years old and only a couple years ago moved into assisted living. They both raised 9 children on midwestern farms and are tough as nails. I inherited my strength and tenacity from both of them!