What is the BRAT Diet?
BRAT is an acronym that stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are often recommended following a stomach illness.
What do these foods have in common? They are all bland and supposedly easy on the stomach. Sticking to them after dealing with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may help you feel better faster.
What can you eat
You can eat more than just bananas, applesauce, rice, and toast on the BRAT diet. The key is to eat bland foods that are gentle on the stomach. These foods are also considered binding foods, meaning they are low in fiber and may stop diarrhea by firming up your stools.
Other bland foods include:
- cooked cereals, like oatmeal or cream of wheat
- weak tea
- apple juice or flat soda
- boiled potatoes
There are also foods you may want to avoid while following this diet. They include:
- milk and dairy
- anything fried, greasy, fatty, or spicy
- proteins, such as steak, pork, salmon, and sardines
- raw veggies, including salad greens, carrot sticks, broccoli, and cauliflower
- fruits, such as pineapple, orange, grapefruit, apple, and tomato
- very hot or cold drinks
- alcohol, coffee, or other drinks containing caffeine
How to follow the BRAT diet
In the first six hours of your illness, you may want to skip food altogether. Wait until the vomiting and diarrhea have stopped to give your stomach some rest.
Before introducing the BRAT diet, you may want to start by sucking on popsicles or ice chips, and sipping water or sports drinks. That will help replace water and electrolytes that were lost as a result of your illness.
You should try to add clear liquids back into your diet in the first 24 hours after your illness. Try sipping on liquids every 10 minutes or so. Try things like water, apple juice, and vegetable or chicken broth. If your symptoms return, stop drinking the clear liquids, and wait a couple of hours before trying again.
After the first day of your illness, start following the BRAT diet. This diet is limiting and not very nutritious, so you won’t want to stay on it for longer than necessary. By the third day following your illness, you should start slowly adding normal foods back into your diet. Start with things like soft-cooked eggs, cooked fruits and vegetables, and white meat, like chicken or turkey.
The important thing is to follow your body’s cues. If you eat too much variety too soon, your symptoms may return. On the other hand, you may be able to eat a lot soon after your sickness ends.
Doctors have been recommending the BRAT diet for years, but it may not always be the best option. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) no longer recommends this diet for children and infants. That’s because the foods are restrictive and don’t give the body enough protein, micronutrients, and macronutrients for healing. That said, there have been studies on some of the BRAT foods and how they affect diarrhea.
Bananas, for example, have a certain starch called pectin that is good for the digestive tract. They also help with the absorption of water and electrolytes. In one study, ill baby boys ages 5 to 12 months were given either a diet of rice alone, or rice and bananas or pectin. The boys who ate both the rice and bananas or pectin had between 55 and 59 percent reduction in stool versus 15 percent in the rice-only group. The rice and bananas or pectin group also needed less intravenous fluids for hydration and experienced less vomiting.
In an older study from 1998, though, two toddlers with diarrhea were put on the BRAT diet after bowel rest and hydration with clear liquids. Both developed severe malnutrition along with other medical issues after two weeks of the BRAT diet. This case was admittedly extreme, but the AAP recommends a more varied diet than BRAT after stomach illness. The AAP recommends feeding children a balanced diet as soon as they are well, and nursing or giving full-strength formula to infants.
For adults and children, the BRAT diet is better than eating no foods at all. It just shouldn’t be used as a long-term solution. If you have questions about how long to stay on this diet after your illness, contact your doctor. The goal is to return to a normal diet as soon as possible, even if your diarrhea persists, so as to avoid malnutrition.
When to seek help
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have been experiencing frequent or severe diarrhea. Your symptoms may be a sign of viral gastroenteritis, which typically doesn’t require medical treatment. But there are other conditions that cause similar symptoms and do require medical treatment. For example, your symptoms may be caused by:
- a parasite
- certain medications
- food intolerances
- other issues that may need immediate medical attention
- dry mouth
- less frequent urination
- tiredness, weakness, or dizziness
Also call your doctor if you have severe abdominal or rectal pain, bloody or black stools, or a fever over 102°F (38.8°C).
With small children and babies, you should call their doctor if vomiting or diarrhea persist for just one day.
In addition to diet, there are other things you can do to help improve your recovery from a stomach bug.
Dehydration is a serious complication of diarrhea. Drink clear liquids like water, broth, and apple juice. Focusing on electrolytes is also a good idea. You can try over-the-counter (OTC) electrolyte drinks, like Pedialyte (also available in popsicle form), or even try drinking coconut water or Gatorade.
Avoid certain foods
Pay attention to the foods you eat. While BRAT isn’t recommended as a long-term solution to your stomach upset, you may still want to avoid fried, fatty, or spicy foods for a few days. You should also avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Ask your doctor about anti-diarrheal medications, as they can worsen or mask underlying causes of your diarrhea. There are many OTC options. These medications can help the number of diarrhea episodes you have. They won’t help you if your diarrhea is caused by bacteria, a parasite, or another medical issue. They may also not be safe for children.
Probiotics and prebiotics
Feeding your intestinal tract good bacteria may help get you feeling better fast. You can find probiotics in capsule or liquid forms. The strains recommended for diarrhea are Lactobacillus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii. Probiotics are also in fermented foods, like yogurt and kombucha. Prebiotic-rich fiber also may be beneficial since prebiotics help to feed gut bacteria. These fibers can be found in chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, legumes, berries, bananas, onions, oats, and garlic.
You may be worried about eating again after having a stomach bug, but dehydration is actually the biggest concern. Call your doctor if you:
- have a dry mouth
- have excessive thirst
- stop urinating as frequently
- feel tired, or have weakness or dizziness
Dehydration can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Try introducing foods as soon as you can tolerate them. Though the BRAT diet isn’t supported by research as the best solution, bananas and whole grains may help you recover faster. As soon as you are able, eat a varied, balanced diet to restore your overall nutrition and energy levels.