The “banana” diet for celiac disease
This post is very long but if you have any interest at all in the history of celiac disease and early dietary treatment you will find the story that follows fascinating.
Long before gluten was identified as the culprit in celiac disease, a doctor by the name of Sidney Haas in New York City was successfully treating pediatric patients using what came to be known as the “banana diet.” A former patient of Dr. Haas recently contacted me. She very generously and graciously wrote down her recollections of the banana diet.
Early history of the gluten-free diet (excerpted from The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide, McGraw-Hill, 2008)
The gluten-free diet has not always been the treatment of choice for celiac disease. Before the 1950s and the identification of wheat gluten as the culprit in celiac disease, the thinking was that people with celiac disease could not properly absorb carbohydrates and/or fat. A particularly interesting dietary treatment used during this time was the banana diet, made popular by physician Sidney Haas.
This diet restricted both carbohydrates (with the exception of ripe bananas) and fat. In his famous paper, “The value of the banana in the treatment of celiac disease,” published in 1924, Dr. Haas presented the following foods as a typical diet for a child with celiac disease: albumin milk, pot cheese, bananas (as many as the child would take, usually four to eight each day), oranges, vegetables, gelatin, and meat.
A former patient of Dr. Sidney Haas tells her story
I was born with celiac 77 years ago. I was a year old and my brother was 3 when it was discovered we both had celiac. I was told many years later that my brother had been close to death. We lived in New York City where Dr. Haas had his practice. He had done research with another doctor and found that bananas were a tolerated “starch” for celiac’s.
My mother had to prepare a formula with bananas that took hours to complete. My parents would have to buy “trees” of bananas because that is the way they were sold. Because my parents had to buy so many bananas for my brother and me, one of the neighbors in the apartment building where we lived in New York City, took my parents to court because they thought that my parents were poisoning us.
As a child, (as best as I can remember) my diet consisted of Acidophilus milk, buttermilk, Pot Cheese (not the kind that is sold in the stores today, which is gooey and awful), bananas, apples, dates, other fruits I can’t remember, most vegetables, beef, and butterfish (which my mother liked). A wonderful memory for me is when my mother baked bananas, apples, and dates with lots of butter.
Every time a new food was added to our diet, Dr. Haas had us take castor oil to clean out our stomach. This was terrible for me because my father had to chase me around the house. When he finally did catch me, he had to wrap a blanket around me, squeeze my nose so my mouth would open, pour the castor oil down my throat, and then jam an orange in my mouth to suck. I know that the castor oil must have been only a teaspoon, but I can still imagine the whole bottle being poured down my throat. For years and years after having oranges jammed into my mouth, I was not able to eat a fresh orange. Now I can’t eat them because they have too much acid for me.
Every time my brother and I went to birthday parties, my mother made sure to fix food for us that would have been similar to what the other children ate. I don’t know how she did it, but I never felt deprived. My brother on the other hand, was more daring than me. He always tried to sneak something that he wasn’t’ allowed to eat like candy.
When I was around 10 years old, I went “Trick or Treating” and was very “bad” because I ate lots of candy corn. That night, I became very sick and remember being delirious. The sugar was something that my stomach was not ready to handle. While children my age knew about bubble gum and other popular candy, I had no idea what they were talking about.
By the time I was 12 years old, I was able to eat “everything”. I was brought up to believe that sugars and starches were what a celiac was not able to digest. I was also told that I was “cured.”
Whenever I went to Dr. Haas’s office which was at 47 West 86th Street, his office was filled with children of all ages and many I remember looked like they came from the concentration camps during WW II with their sunken eyes and swollen stomachs. Growing up I’d hear stories from my parents about how Dr. Haas would tell them about children he’d been asked to see after doctors would operate on them. The parents would be told that their children had only a few hours to live.
Dr. Haas would feed them the formula of bananas and the children would survive. My parents had two sets of friends with one child each who had been operated on with all kinds of stomach problems. These 2 children never got better but remained terribly sick. My parents insisted that they see Dr. Haas, which they finally did, and these 2 children, later in years, were beautiful healthy children.
As a young mother, I thought I was so smart being aware of celiac and the symptoms because of all my growing up years being surrounded by Dr. Haas’s patients when going to his office. Wrong!!!!!!
At 6 months old, my daughter started to lose weight and projected her formula across the room. My parents were so upset with me that they very firmly advised me to take my daughter to Dr. Haas. I finally went. After he fluoroscoped her he told me she had rickets. He put her on Casec milk which I made her formula with using only pasteurized milk with the cream on top and banana flakes which came in a can. He prescribed tremendous doses of Atropine, because of pains she had in her stomach which I had to give her for a long time.
She was able to eat everything by the time she was 3 years old. She has told me that since she had to eat so many bananas as a child, she hated them and couldn’t stand the sight of them for a very long time. BUT now she loves them.
Note: I ate many more bananas in my growing up years than my 4 children ever did and I never lost the taste for a delicious banana! I use to eat it with peanut butter but now with soy butter — plain too.
When my younger daughter was born, I wasn’t such a “know-it-all” mother, and the moment I noticed her discomfort consistently, I took her to Dr. Haas. She was also able to eat everything by the age of 3 years old and we were told that she was “cured.” My oldest son (first child) had some stomach problems but I was the “know-it-all” mother and fed him what I thought was a celiac diet of pot cheese, eggs, bananas, tuna fish, chicken, mostly ground beef, most vegetables and fruit. He was okay with what I gave him. When my youngest son was born, Dr. Haas had passed away. When my family doctor told me that my son had “colic” I immediately tried to find a doctor who knew how to treat a child with celiac. I did, but mostly fed my son the same way I remembered Dr. Haas telling me to feed my daughters.
One more memory of Dr. Haas was when I took my children to have them examined, his son, Dr. Merrill Haas, (we called him Dr. Merrill) examined them first and then Dr. Haas would re-examine them. I am talking about a doctor who was 89, 90, 91 even 92. I would not go to anybody else.
I have always had problems with my stomach. Around the age of 30-something, I found that I could not eat lettuce or even fresh vegetables or fruits. Everything had to be cooked. When I reached 50, I became lactose intolerant. I used to eat lots of cottage cheese and also many different kinds of cheeses. I had terrible pains and diarrhea 20 minutes after drinking milk or eating cheese.
From then until now, I’ve had periods of sudden upset stomachs (I thought for no reason) and it would take over a month and a half to get better. No gastroenterologist ever said that I had celiac even though I constantly asked them. I have had quite a few endoscopies because I have acid reflux but all have come back negative for celiac, or so I have been told each time. This past year I have had terrible pains of gas in my chest and through my body and pressure in my rectum. After going through test after test at the cardiologist to test my heart and finding my heart very healthy, I discussed with my gastroenterologist about going on a celiac diet, which he agreed that I should do so.
I only knew it to be a diet free of sugars and starches. I certainly have been shocked to find out, since Dr. Haas was honored world wide by physicians, that the word “starches” has been replaced by the word “gluten.” For the past 3 months now, being on a gluten-free diet has certainly helped with all the terrible gas pains. I can now, suddenly, eat a moderate amount of fresh fruit and vegetables. Corn on the cob is on my menu again and so is lettuce.
There is so much gluten-free food available in stores today; many support groups throughout the country; lots of available information on the internet; books written to help those learn about their gluten-free diets; and various cookbooks. All this information was not available for my mother or for me. The list of foods available today for those on a gluten-free diet is just plain enormous.
Thank goodness for all the research that was done for finally discovering that gluten was the “culprit”. If Dr. Haas was alive today, I would again give him a big hug for saving my brother, my children, and my life.
Copyright © by Tricia Thompson, MS, RD
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