A healthy diet generally consists of eating a wide variety of nutritious, low-fat foods in moderation. But if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may notice symptoms after you eat certain foods.
Because symptoms can vary between people, there’s not one list of off-limit foods. Yet by avoiding some of the most common triggers for IBS symptoms, you may notice more regularity, fewer cramps, and less bloating.
Fiber adds healthy bulk to the diet. It’s available in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. But fiber also aggravates diarrhea. Eating too much insoluble fiber in the form of grains can increase your trips to the bathroom.
Focus on soluble fiber instead. Keep in mind that insoluble fiber may relieve constipation, but it can also make you feel bloated.
Foods with soluble fiber include:
- grains, like oatmeal and barley
- root vegetables, like carrots and parsnips
- fruits, like berries, mangos, oranges, and grapefruit
- legumes, like peas
While the insoluble fiber content in whole grains may cause IBS symptoms, certain grains can cause other problems. Products containing rye, wheat, and barley contain gluten.
Gluten is a type of protein some people are allergic to. This condition is known as celiac disease and can cause symptoms like those of diarrhea predominant IBS. Many people with IBS are also gluten intolerant.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that occurs in some individuals as a reaction to the ingestion of gluten. It can cause changes in the intestinal cells resulting in poor absorption of nutrients.
Some people have gluten intolerance without the immune response or changes in the intestinal cells known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These people may experience the same negative side effects and gastrointestinal symptoms of gluten ingestion as those with celiac disease.
More gluten-free products come onto the market every day. If you can’t do without pizza, pasta, cakes, or cookies, you can always substitute with gluten-free ingredients.
Dairy is problematic for two reasons. First, it contains fat, which can increase diarrhea. You may need to switch to low-fat or nonfat dairy to lessen symptoms.
Second, many people with IBS are lactose intolerant. This means their systems can’t digest lactose in milk products. They may still eat yogurt, but might have to switch to alternatives like soymilk and soy cheeses.
Make sure to talk to your doctor about a calcium supplement if you decide to cut out dairy.
French fries and other fried foods are a staple in the typical American diet. Moderation is the key with these foods. The high fat content may be especially hard on the system for people with IBS.
This doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite foods. Consider grilling or baking them instead for a healthier option.
Beans are generally a great source of protein and fiber, but they can cause IBS symptoms.
While beans can increase bulk in stool to help constipation, they also increase gas, bloating, and cramps. If you’re like most people with IBS, you’ll want to add beans to your list of foods to avoid.
Some people swear by their morning coffee for regularity. But like all caffeinated drinks, coffee has a stimulating effect on the intestines that can cause diarrhea. Coffee and other beverages that contain caffeine are off-limits for people with IBS.
These can also include sodas and energy drinks. Some people may be able to handle tea with caffeine, while others can’t.
If you need an energy boost or pick-me-up, consider eating a small snack or going for a quick walk.
We don’t always put a lot of thought into what’s in the processed foods we’re eating, but people with IBS might want to avoid them. Processed foods often contain additives or ingredients that might trigger IBS flare-ups.
A large number of processed foods, like chips or premade frozen meals, are often fried or high in fat.
When possible, making meals yourself or buying foods that are made fresh is often a better alternative to buying processed foods.
The FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols) diet focuses on reducing or eliminating fermentable, short-chain carbohydrates. Research suggests that they’re not absorbed well by the small intestine. It’s thought that they increase fluid in the bowel and create more gas, resulting in pain, gas, and diarrhea.
If you choose to follow the FODMAP diet, you should restrict:
- lactose and dairy
- products containing high fructose corn syrup
- added fiber
- vegetables like broccoli, garlic, artichokes, and onions
- chickpeas and lentils
Foods that you should enjoy while on a FODMAP diet include:
- lactose-free milk or other dairy-free alternatives
- cheeses like feta or brie
- fruits like bananas, kiwi, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, and strawberries
- vegetables like lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, bok choy, turnips, potatoes, and eggplant
- protein like tofu, chicken, beef, and fish
Not everyone with IBS experiences the same symptoms. Consider using the elimination approach to figure out which foods affect you. Make a list of the foods that might be causing your symptoms. Then, avoid one food at a time for 12 weeks. Take frequent notes to see if eliminating a certain food makes any difference.
Foods and beverages that are typically safe to eat during an IBS flare-up include:
- toasted bread or bagels, which can be gluten-free if necessary
- hot rice cereal
- fat-free saltines and pretzels
- plain baked potatoes with no skin
- homemade dried or fresh bananas
- plain angel food cake
- peppermint, chamomile, fennel, or ginger tea
Many people are able to manage their IBS symptoms with diet and lifestyle changes.
Natural remedies that can reduce IBS symptoms like pain, bloating, and diarrhea include:
- ginger or ginger tea, which can treat a variety of digestion issues
- peppermint (or peppermint oil), which can reduce abdominal pain
- chamomile tea, which is thought to reduce inflammation and stop spasms happening in the digestive tract
Stress and anxiety can also contribute to IBS symptoms. Learning relaxation techniques or stress management techniques can reduce your flare-ups. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga can all help.
Tobacco and alcohol can also worsen your IBS symptoms. So, if you use tobacco in any form, you should quit. You should also limit or stop your alcohol intake.
And you can help decrease symptoms of IBS by eating breakfast every day and eating smaller meals instead of three big ones.