Can dieting help prevent or mitigate Candida yeast infections?
An online search reveals that there’s no shortage of anti-Candida diets. You’ll find plenty of Candida cleanse and Candida diet listings offering ways to prevent or treat yeast infections. Many of these diets also claim to relieve a wide range of symptoms related to gut health.
What Is Candida?
Candida is a naturally occurring type of yeast found in the body. It typically lives in places like the mouth, throat, gut and genitals. There are hundreds of species of Candida yeasts. The most common is Candida albicans.
The presence of Candida in the body is normal. However, it’s common for Candida to grow out of control, which can cause infections. The most common type of yeast infection are vaginal yeast infections, also known as vulvovaginal candidiasis. It’s estimated that 3 in 4 women have at least one yeast infection in their lifetime.
This type of infection is very common; in the U.S. it’s the second most common type of vaginal infection, trailing only bacterial vaginal infections. Overall, “an estimated 1.4 million outpatient visits occur annually in the United States,” according to the CDC. The overall number of vaginal candidiasis cases in the U.S. is unknown.
A vaginal Candida yeast infection can cause an array of symptoms, including:
— A white, thick and odorless discharge.
— Burning and redness.
— Pain or burning during urination.
— Pain during sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that about 20% of women normally have Candida in the vagina without having any symptoms. In normal amounts, Candida is a gut flora — the collection of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, found in our intestines. This collection is also known as the gut microbiome. Every person has a microbiome, a collection of more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in our body, primarily in the large intestine, and having a diverse microbiome is important for overall health.
[See: Foods That Cause Bloating.]
What Is the Candida Diet?
Because yeast infections are so common, numerous anti-Candida diets have bloomed in response. The most popular is the Candida diet, which subscribes to the notion that sugar feeds so-called Candida overgrowth, usually in the gut, leading to a range of problems that extend beyond one’s intestines.
These symptoms include:
— Digestive issues.
— Food allergies.
Lisa Richards is a certified nutrition coach and a proponent of the Candida diet. She created the Ultimate Candida Diet and advocates the belief that Candida in the gut can cause such wide-ranging symptoms.
In describing the diet online, she states: “By improving your gut health and restoring the balance of the bacteria and yeast that live inside your body, you can get relief from Candida symptoms like bloating, indigestion, yeast infections, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea and gas.”
“The Candida diet is a low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet designed to reduce the colonization of Candida in the gut and lower the incidence of yeast infections and other symptoms,” she expanded in response to a question via email. It’s also a gluten-free diet.
[Read: What Is Gut Health?]
Candida Diet Foods
The Candida diet eating regimen includes:
— Non-starchy vegetables, such as zucchini and broccoli.
— Some low-sugar fruits like berries (while avoiding high-sugar fruits like bananas, grapes and mangoes).
— Gluten-free grains like quinoa (avoiding grains that contain gluten including wheat, barley, rye and spelt).
— Lean proteins. Eggs and the white meat of chicken and turkey are preferred choices, though some red meat, like well-cooked beef, is allowed.
— Only some dairy products like ghee and butter fit in the diet; no cheese or milk.
— Fermented foods, which contain probiotics — like yogurt (that doesn’t have a lot of sugar) and kefir — are two other sources of dairy that get the green light.
— In addition, followers of the diet are encouraged to avoid alcohol and minimize caffeine consumption.
Does the Candida Diet Work?
Despite healthy elements of the Candida diet, like reducing sugar intake, some independent experts question the diet’s claim that it can reduce yeast infections. They also question the wide range of symptoms attributed to Candida overgrowth. What’s more, clinicians and dietitians worry that its restrictive nature could be worse for gut health, compared with eating a wider variety of foods, and may therefore undermine one’s overall health.
Based on scientific research, it’s not clear whether dietary changes of any kind can prevent or treat yeast infections in most women. “In women who are diabetic, where the glucose is out of control, it does increase their risk of having yeast infections, and their dietary changes may make a difference,” says Dr. Paul Nyirjesy, a gynecology specialist with the Vulvovaginal Health Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Nyirjesy has been a consultant on the CDC’s guidelines on sexually transmitted diseases treatment since 2005 and wrote the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ most recent guidelines on vaginitis.
While dietary changes may help with the management of diabetes, Nyirjesy says that doesn’t translate to individuals whose blood sugar is in a normal, healthy range. “For most women with yeast infections (who don’t have diabetes) there’s no evidence that dietary changes make a bit of a difference,” he says.
Lack of Scientific Evidence
Richards contends that reducing sugar intake can also help control Candida growth in the gut. “There is evidence that Candida colonization in the gut forms a ‘reservoir’ that allows patients to be repeatedly re-infected with vaginal yeast infections,” she says, citing 2001 research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. “There has been a lack of research conducted into the Candida diet because there is little money to be made out of it,” she adds.
However, according to gut microbiome researchers, there are no established “normal” reference ranges for Candida in the gut, so the idea of overgrowth is a subjective one.
Heidi Silver, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a research associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, also describes a lack of research that directly tests or supports the Candida diet, despite decades of people following it. There’s a dearth of studies to support that an anti-Candida diet specifically is what’s needed to bolster gut health, reduce yeast infections or address a range of other symptoms.
“This was a very popular fad diet as far back as 35 years ago. So it’s been around for quite a while,” Silver says. “It’s not a new concept.” But despite all the time that’s passed, “there really isn’t a scientific evidence base to make any conclusions about the anti-Candida diet.”
Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia, concurs with Silver that there’s a lack of scientific evidence suggesting that the Candida diet can prevent yeast infections or lessen their severity. “If you want to improve your gut health, you should not restrict the variety of food you eat,” she adds.
While clinicians like Dr. Edwin McDonald concede that cutting back on certain foods may reduce bloating or help address gastrointestinal upset, they’re quick to point out that doesn’t mean the Candida diet can help prevent yeast infections.
“Within GI, the gastrointestinal literature, I have not seen any official studies that have demonstrated the benefit of this anti-Candida diet,” says McDonald, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. McDonald is also the associate director of adult clinical nutrition at UChicago Medicine and a trained chef.
There’s no evidence to support the efficacy of the Candida diet when it comes to preventing or mitigating yeast infections, agrees Dr. Erin Higgins, an obstetrician-gynecologist with Cleveland Clinic. “Additionally, this (diet) could lead to disordered eating, abnormal eating behaviors and/or eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia,” Higgins says. “Such lifestyle/dietary changes should only be made under the guidance of a medical professional.”
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Update 06/21/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.