Eating Right

The connection between what you eat and how you feel is the topic of a great many discussions around ulcerative colitis. Despite countless approaches and solutions to this issue, we have only one absolute truth: There is no universal answer to the question of what to eat with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

It would be convenient indeed if someone could tell us what foods are safe and what to avoid. Unfortunately, there is no such magic solution that works for everyone. So how do we know what is and isn’t good to eat?

Talk to Your Doctor

Many patients start by asking their doctor. Some folks get great advice this way, although doctors are in a difficult position on this topic. We expect them to provide authoritative advice, but this particular topic is one of great uncertainty. The ideal diet is something that varies greatly between patients. As a result, what we often hear from docs is the one thing they are sure about—that the disease is not caused by dietary factors. While that may be true, patients know quite well that food choices definitely affect their symptoms. So we’re still left wondering what to eat.

But don’t be discouraged, there are other ways to figure it out. The best approach is to experiment on your own.

Keep a Food Diary

Keeping a food diary is a very effective tool. Write down what you eat and when, and record how you feel. As the data comes together you can look back over your documented experience and draw conclusions. Writing it all down (even when you’re feeling well) helps ensure that you catch both the obvious and indirect relationships between foods and symptoms. Change your diet in small ways over time to be sure you can isolate causes and effects. If a food is problematic once, try it again another time in a slightly different situation. If it is consistently troublesome, take it out of your diet. If you’re not sure, remove it for a while and go back to it later to see if the problem returns.

Learn From Others

You can also learn a great deal from other people. There are several books on the topic. Your local IBD support group can be a great way to meet people who have experience to share about diet (and other topics). In this process be sure to remember that what works for someone else is not necessarily what’s going to work for you. It may also be worthwhile to consult a specialist. Dieticians and nutritionists can be especially helpful to people with IBD. Finally, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America offers some good advice about diet and nutrition as well.

Getting the proper nutrition while managing a chronic illness can be quite a challenge. With or without the help of others, you’ll still have plenty to figure out on your own. As you continue learning what is friend and foe to your body, keep these DOs and DON’Ts in mind.


…give up on a food if it caused problems only once. Try it again in a different situation.

…change too many variables at once. Try to change only one thing at a time so you can observe the results.

…shock your system with dramatic changes in diet. Ease into your new plans and give your body time to adapt.

…be discouraged if you don’t find easy answers or quick results. This takes time and experimentation.

…judge your health or disease status based on comparing your safe and problematic foods to those of others. Everyone is unique.

…be discouraged or angry that you are limited this way. It is a part of your life now, for better or worse, and your energy is better spent on finding answers. It’s OK to acknowledge the hardships, but do your best to move forward and work on positive solutions.


…try your best to eat a well-balanced diet. It’s important to maximize nutritional health, even if it is more difficult with IBD.

…ask your doctor for advice, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t get definite answers. There are no universal rules.

…see a dietary professional if you’d like more help.

…find a support group and learn more about local resources.

…read some books on the topic.

…keep a food diary, consult/analyze the data, and listen to the insight it offers.

…try foods more than once, in different contexts, to test their safety for your system.

…make small incremental changes to your diet as you observe the results.

…realize that your dietary needs may evolve over time as your body goes through cycles of inflammation, healing, and remission. Safe and troublesome foods may trade places.

…most of all, listen to your body. It has both obvious and subtle ways of telling you what it prefers.

The simple answer is, eat what treats you well and don’t eat what causes you trouble. There may be times when your diet is very limited. But as you heal you may be able expand your choices again. Be sure to listen and heed your body’s advice, and you should do well.