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Specific Carbohydrate Diet Interview: Marilyn Alm

December 7, 2007
Name: Marilyn Alm
Location: New Orleans, LA
SCD experience: Marilyn Alm started using the specific carbohydrate diet in 2001 for IBS and is a frequent contributor to the SCD listserv. She has brought her inventive New Orleans cooking skills to the SCD--including helping mothers create recipes for hard-to-feed children with autism.

In the conversation below she talks about some of her SCD experiences, including staying on the diet during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

She may be reached through

What health issue led you to use the specific carbohydrate diet?
In 1976, I went on the pill and it triggered irritable bowel syndrome: unexpected urgency, soft mushy stools, the whole 9 yards.
How did you hear about the specific carbohydrate diet?
I found out about the diet through my dogs, Shadow and Sunny. In 1998, I was feeding them the recommended kibble, which is 90% grain. Although I was feeding them minimal amounts, they were constantly hungry and kept gaining weight. They also had soft mushy stools, which were an entertainment to pick up:)

I visited a vet specializing in natural pet care. She recommended putting the dogs on a raw homemade diet.

I gave them raw meaty bones (50% meat, 50% bone), vegetables, and some yogurt. The dogs' weight normalized, their stools became normal, and their problems disappeared. (I was worried about salmonella, but dogs' stomachs are more acidic most humans'.)

How did you make the connection between changing the dog's diet and your own diet?
I attended a conference given by an Australian veterinarian who popularized the raw food diet for dogs.

He noted that as a vet he wasn't licensed to prescribe for humans but he had come to believe that humans needed grain about as much as dogs did--very small quantities if at all. He also noted that he and his wife had gone grain free and felt much better for it.

After hearing that, I began to search for a grain-free diet for humans, because IBS had really taken a toll on my health.

Then someone in a natural medicine forum, wrote "Get yourself a copy of Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall."

When was this?
The summer of 2001. At that point I had had IBS for 25 years. It was worsening, urgency hit when it felt like it, and my weight was increasing, going totally insane.

When the book came I read it cover to cover. It took me about 2 hours. I lay there on my bed going, "Oh my God! This makes so much sense."

When did you start the diet?
It took me several months to get started. Eventually, I cleared out three shelves in my pantry that were full of pasta, rice, and so forth.

At that point I was mostly on the diet, except for the spices--my spices still had additives not allowed on the diet. I was still getting up the nerve to go cold turkey.

This was in mid-September 2001 and on Sept. 15th of that year I began having back spasms which I thought were due to a previous back injury. My doctor gave me painkillers for my back which didn't help since it turned out that I had severe gall bladder disease. When this was finally diagnosed, my doctor said, "Go directly to a surgeon. Do not pass go."

On November 4th, I had my gall bladder removed. My liver enzymes were so high that afterward the surgeon said he had expected to find liver cancer.

Unfortunately, I didn't react well to the anesthesia and had to remain in the hospital for four days--but still stayed on the diet. Harry, my husband, even made me SCD legal jello.

How were you doing after going home? Did you stay on the diet?
I did stay on the diet. I spent my time sleeping, getting up to eat, or directing Harry to cook.

After the hospital, I tolerated only four foods: pork roasted with garlic, beef roasted with a slather of legal Creole mustard, steamed zucchini with shredded cheese, and soft-boiled eggs.

What were your days like during this time?
In the beginning I was so tired I would stagger to the kitchen, have some soft-boiled eggs for breakfast and sleep for a few hours. Then I would stagger up again, pull a slice or two of beef roast or pork roast out and eat that. Sleep, stagger up, steam zucchini and have it with some shredded cheese.

Within a month after the surgery, by the first week in December, I was back at work.

Was the diet helping?
As far as I could tell, I was feeling better. My liver enzymes were normal by mid-December 2001. But it took Christmas dinner to really notice things.

As my gut issues became worse over the years, so did my emotional state. I often became unhinged about things. I understand entirely what the moms on are talking about when they say "my kid went into meltdown after eating something illegal."

Christmas dinner is a bit of a trial. I usually have one major meltdown in the middle of preparing. That December my mom was concerned over the idea of serving this weird SCD food to family and friends so I made parallel meals--the normal one and one for SCD.

I made up recipes as I went along. I made up recipes for cranberry sauce and turkey dressing. I made up a recipe for pumpkin casserole, another for a pumpkin cake.

After dinner, when everyone had left, Harry and I were sitting together. The dinner went off beautifully*. No meltdowns or anything. I never noticed. But Harry noticed and commented and then said, "I like SCD. It's nice to have the woman I married back."

That was the determining point: come hell or high water I would continue with the diet.

(*What was interesting was that all the SCD food was eaten. The ordinary food was left.)

Did your IBS symptoms improve?
Yes. The urgency was gone. However, I was still having some stool mushiness. It took me a while to figure out that fruit in quantity and I don't get along. So I cut back on fruit and that helped tremendously.
Was your weight normalizing?
From November 2001 to May 2002, I dropped 75 pounds without restricting my food intake. By the second SCD Christmas, where I made SCD food for everyone, I had lost 150 pounds. Over the next three years, I gradually lost another 30 pounds--a total loss of 180 pounds.
That's great. Do you do any types of exercise?
Since 2004, I've been doing a tai chi class twice a week. I also participate in a water exercise class.
Many people say that the diet is difficult. Do you have any stories about staying on the diet with a busy schedule?
Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We fled our house at 2:30 a.m. in the morning. The storm made landfall at 6 a.m. We took the dogs, the computer with our files, and two freezer bags with SCD food. All else was negotiable.
Where did you stay?
I have a friend, Eileen, who lives outside of Baton Rouge. In normal circumstances it's a 90-minute drive but that morning it took over 3 hours.

Eileen lives with her husband and her youngest daughter, a total of 3 people. During Katrina, 12 of us lived there--family, friends, and one man who was stranded.

We had no electricity for three days. I was in charge of meal planning--figuring out what we could cook, on a propane burner or the backyard barbecue, that could feed everyone and still allow me to stay SCD legal.

Was it possible to store food?
Yes, Eileen had a generator that we ran every twelve hours to keep the food refrigerated. That's when we took out the food for meals. Eileen threatened pain of death if anyone opened the refrigerator or the freezer at any other time. We did a lot of grilled stuff and stews: beef stew, chicken stew, and vegetable stew.

We even spent time engineering an SCD spice mixture which tastes like Tony Chachere's Cajun seasoning.

Did you return home after that?
Before Katrina, we had made travel arrangements to attend an Atlanta science fiction conference. Without a house and with two dogs in tow, this looked doubtful. However, our friend, author Anne McCaffrey, insisted that all of us, including the dogs, come and stay in her hotel suite. She said, "If the hotel has a problem, they can deal with me."

We drove to Atlanta, arriving at 6am with SCD food and two dachshunds, smuggling the dogs up in the elevator. We stayed for the conference, five or six days, and then stayed with another friend in Alabama.

SCD on the road . . .
We were experienced in SCD travel, so this wasn't a problem. But by the time we had reached Birmingham, we had spent several days without spices. For a New Orleanian, this is--well, we found a Penzey's spice store and proceeded to stock up.

Tanya (from the SCD list) mailed us a yogurt maker and starter. In addition, the friend we stayed with became involved with the cooking. He bought a meat grinder and a food dehyrator. We made homemade beefsticks, homemade pepperoni, homemade barbecued beef, homemade blackened beef, homemade salt and pepper beefsticks.

I'm coming to visit you for dinner. When your returned home, was it difficult buy food?
Hard in the beginning. Looters had destroyed the mom and pop grocery about a mile from our house. One day I spent three hours going from store to store trying to find SCD-legal food.

For toilet paper and paper towels, we had to go to Baton Rouge, 90 miles away. For fresh vegetables, we went across the lake to a farmer's market in Covington. That's 50 miles each way. But it was good to see the vendors--to know that everyone was OK.

We also had to throw out our freezer and refrigerator. We survived on two small dorm fridges. We returned to New Orleans in the beginning of October but we weren't able to get a freezer or fridge until January.

You had to throw out your fridge?
Everyone did, there was no way to clean them. [see Katrina refrigerator. During the following hurricane season, the newspaper advised: "If you're going to evacuate, place everything in your fridge in garbage bags and place the bags back inside. If power goes out, you can take out the garbage bags and you don't lose the refrigerator. If food is ok, you lose only some time taking items out of bags."

We lost a lot of food.

What did you lose?
3 flats of strawberries
4 flats of blueberries
2 batches of peaches
15-20 lbs. peeled jumbo shrimp
3 or 4 containers of jumbo lump crab meat
Lots of catfish and sea bream. This was all wild caught, bought from local fishers.
12 packages of pasture fed bacon
Sauce from 150 pounds of heirloom tomatoes which I had peeled and cooked down
Pasture-fed steaks, roasts, everything.

We simply had to drag it out and throw it away.

Wow! That's a big loss.
Do you have any tips for people starting the diet?
Don't panic. Don't focus on how deprived you're going to be, or how difficult this all is. Do focus on feeling better. Don't try to go elaborate. For example, after we returned home from Katrina, we had only a crock-pot and a Foreman type grill. We couldn't do anything fancy because the power was intermittent for a good 6-8 months after we returned. But the grill was quick, and the crock pot could handle having the power go out for an hour or two and not have the roast turn out bad.

Most people can handle the idea of a Foreman grill. Undo a block of frozen chopped spinach, steam it. Throw a burger patty, boneless pork chop, steak, or chicken breast on the grill. Close the lid for 3 or 4 minutes and then take the food off. That's dinner. Breakfast can be soft-boiled or hard-boiled eggs. Or an extra piece of grilled beef.

Crock-pots are phenomenal. I was throwing chuck roast and beef seasoning into the crock pot in the morning. I'd let it crock all day while I was a work. Come home, dump veggies in, and eat an hour later. Keeping it simple is super important for people who work full-time, are full-time parents, or both.

I know that you're responsible for adapting recipes to the SCD, ranging from Louisiana dishes to hot dogs. This has been especially helpful to many parents in the autism community. Are there any recipes that you haven't been able to adapt to the SCD? What about chocolate?
Actually, I'm on the verge of something that tastes like chocolate, using medjool dates. Medjool dates, a little bit of coffee for the bite, vanilla extract.
Please let us know when it's perfected:)