What Is the Yeast-Free Diet?
Pictured Recipe: Cauliflower Chicken Fried "Rice"
What is the yeast-free diet—and should I be following it?
You may not have heard of the yeast-free diet, but chances are good that you've heard people talking about something called candida or candidiasis, which is a fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of yeast (yeast is technically a microscopic fungus). As many as 63% of people naturally have candida yeast in their bodies, where it mainly shows up in your gastrointestinal tract, or on your skin, your mouth, throat or vagina.
For the majority of people, the presence of candida goes largely unnoticed. But for about 11% of people, candida starts growing uncontrollably, which can be problematic. If you have too much candida in your GI tract, it can lead to a systemic fungal infection, or one that gets into your bloodstream. People with compromised immune systems are particularly prone to these kinds of systemic infections, which can be accompanied by symptoms including nausea, bloating or GI distress, chronic fatigue, skin issues, anxiety or other mood disorders, joint pain and recurrent urinary tract infections.
For people who experience symptoms as a result of candida overgrowth, a yeast-free diet (also known as the candida diet) may be a helpful method of preventing or curbing candida overgrowth. Here's what that looks like.
How the yeast-free diet works
If you have candida overgrowth—and especially if you deal with chronic overgrowth—you might consider trying a yeast-free diet. A yeast-free diet eliminates carbohydrates and most kinds of sugar, as both of those food groups have been linked to the production of candida in your body. The thinking here is that if you can eliminate candida's food source, you may be able to eliminate candida as well. For that reason, the yeast-free diet is considered a long-term exclusion diet, which means you cut foods out for months at a time—and potentially even longer.
In addition to cutting out certain foods thought to "feed" candida, the yeast-free diet is also structured to promote good gut health, as there's a link between poor gut health and candida overgrowth (remember: candida is typically plentiful in your GI tract).
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Foods to avoid on the yeast-free diet
If you're trying to avoid foods that feed candida, proponents of the yeast-free diet recommend cutting the following foods from your diet: potatoes, processed meats, canned fruits, added sugars, sugar alcohols and disaccharides (lactose, sucrose). You also eliminate grains (wheat, barley, oats, rice, corn) and other gluten-containing products. Additionally, beer, sweet wine, liqueurs and seeds containing so-called mucilaginous fibers (such as chia seeds and flaxseeds) are out, as are additives and preservatives like maltodextrin, pectin and guar gums.
Foods to eat on a yeast-free diet
You can eat fresh low-sugar fruit (such as lemons, limes and small quantities of berries) and nonstarchy vegetables, including asparagus, cabbage, kale, cucumber, spinach and tomatoes. You can also eat healthy proteins and fats, including chicken, salmon, eggs and fatty fish, plus avocado, extra-virgin olive oil and olives. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and some types of yogurts are encouraged to help promote gut health, while almonds, sunflower seeds and flaxseed are also a part of the plan. Dairy is limited to butter, eggs and aged cheeses with minimal lactose. Honey is one added sugar that is permitted in some versions. As you might expect, sugar-containing foods are severely limited, although some proponents of the diet claim small amounts of honey may be OK; others steer you towards stevia and monk fruit extract.
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Is eating a yeast-free diet healthy? Does it help?
Although eliminating starches and sugars for intestinal health dates back to research first conducted in the 1920s, there still isn't much research on the topic. And what research does exist is mixed.
For instance, in a 2018 pilot study of participants with candida overgrowth, 85% of those who modified their diet and took traditional antifungal medications were cured after three months, compared to just 42% of those who only took antifungal medication. That's a vote in favor of trying the yeast-free diet. But much of the other research that's been conducted has only been done with animals, which isn't as useful as a comparable human study. And other studies, such as this one from 1999 looking at the effect of refined carbohydrates and added sugar on candida growth, find a limited connection between eating patterns and candida colonization.
The bottom line
While there is science that suggests following a yeast-free diet could potentially curb candida growth, there really isn't any research that shows this type of diet will prevent or reverse an infection from candida overgrowth. It's also worth mentioning that—despite recent buzz—this diet also isn't new. The first yeast-free diet was introduced in the 1920s, while the more officially titled "Candida Diet" is about 35 years old. But like many fad diets, it resurfaces periodically.
A final word: The yeast-free diet is structured as a long-term elimination diet. As with any diet that recommends cutting entire food groups out of your eating plan, you need to be mindful of what vitamins and nutrients you're eliminating—and make a plan to get those essential nutrients some other way.
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