Depending on how Crohn’s impacts the body, people living with the condition require a wide range of diets. These are personal stories.
If you live with Crohn’s disease, you know how challenging, frustrating, and uncomfortable this chronic inflammatory bowel disease can be.
Making major dietary changes seems like a given, since those changes might reduce the occurrence or severity of painful symptoms.
Still, associations with specific meals give us comfort culturally, emotionally, and socially, so giving up foods that you love shows just how different your life becomes after receiving this diagnosis.
Healthline talked to five people with Crohn’s disease about what their comfort foods were before their diagnosis, why they can’t eat their favorite meals anymore, and what they’ve replaced them with.
What’s a nut lover to do?
Vern Laine was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 1988, which means he’s been living life as a “Crohnie” for two decades. That’s 20 years of skipping out on his favorite comfort foods such as all things dairy, sunflower seeds, peanuts, hazelnuts, popcorn, and cashews — just to name a few.
“I used to love eating all kinds of nuts and seeds, but now they can cause an intestinal blockage because of strictures,” explains Laine.
But rather than ignore his craving for nuts, he now enjoys smooth peanut butter, which he eats several times a day.
He also misses ice cream, but discovered after years of avoiding dairy of all kinds, he can actually tolerate yogurt, so that’s his dairy substitute.
And for his main meal, Laine misses lasagna the most. “There is way too much ooey-gooey cheese,” he says. Unfortunately, he hasn’t discovered a substitute yet, so he welcomes any ideas!
Saying goodbye to homemade Italian pasta, bread, and pastries
Pre-Crohn’s diagnosis, Alexa Federico says she found comfort in gluten-containing grain foods like bagels, pasta, and bread.
“I ate these foods during my first year of living with Crohn’s, but as I continued to get sick, I sought counsel from a doctor who’s knowledgeable in food sensitivities,” explains Federico. “Low and behold, gluten was a big ‘no’ food for me.”
While it was a blessing to find out that gluten was exacerbating her symptoms and inflammation, she also mourned the loss of having gluten in her daily diet — especially since she was only 12 years old.
“I’m Italian and grew up on lots of bread, pasta, and pastries — most of which were homemade,” says Federico.
“Thankfully, as gluten intolerance and autoimmune disease is becoming more well-known, products on the market to replace gluten-containing foods with gluten-free ones are always getting better,” she explains.
These days when she’s craving the comfort of carbs, she has gluten-free pasta either made from brown rice, chickpeas, or lentils, or a gluten-free bread.
“I always have my cabinet stocked with gluten-free/grain-free flours like coconut, tapioca, and arrowroot, which comes in handy — especially if I’m craving baked goods like banana bread or brownies,” she adds.
Finding other ways to satisfy pizza cravings
Ali Feller was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of seven, so she’s never really known life without it. But as Feller has gotten older, she’s definitely had to make adjustments to her diet.
“My disease has gotten worse over the past few years, with more frequent and intense flare-ups, so while I would eat whatever I wanted growing up and through college, now I know better,” she explains.
For years, her ultimate comfort foods were pizza, macaroni and cheese, and a big bowl of ice cream. Nothing better, right?
But as she’s learned what foods upset her stomach both immediately and in the long-term — namely dairy and gluten — she’s finding that those foods don’t bring her the same satisfaction they used to.
“If I’m seriously craving pizza, there are, fortunately, lots of gluten-free and dairy-free options in the frozen section at the grocery store,” says Feller. “Are they as amazing as a big New York slice? Not really. But they do the job.”
“There are also so many great dairy-free ice cream varieties to choose from, so I never feel deprived,” she adds. And as for macaroni and cheese: Feller says she doesn’t crave it anymore since it makes her so sick.
Making major changes to avoid hospitalization
Since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2009, Troy Parsons says exercise and nutrition have been the biggest factors in helping to control his disease — aside from medication.
“Prior to my diagnosis, I always ate a well-balanced diet,” says Parsons. “It wasn’t until I became sick that I had to take control and be extremely cautious with my diet and lifestyle. If I ate the wrong thing, it would send me straight to the emergency room with a bowel obstruction,” he adds.
After being hospitalized countless times, Parsons decided to dramatically change his diet, which meant following a low-residue diet (a diet low in fiber) and eliminating most vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, greasy foods, and red meat.
And as for comfort foods he once enjoyed, Parsons says steak, burgers, Caesar salad, and alcohol are just a few of the things he now has to avoid. “It took years of trial and error to find out what works specifically for me, but I now know what foods to avoid in order to mitigate the risk of another obstruction.”
It’s not the meals I miss… It’s my favorite snacks
“It’s not so much the comfort foods I can’t eat anymore; rather, it’s the snacks that I used to enjoy,” says Natalie Hayden when talking about her former comfort foods.
“I used to love popcorn, nuts, watermelon, and diet soda, but after my diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in July 2005 at age 21, a nutritionist visited me in my hospital room and painted a very bleak picture,” she shares.
The nutritionist told Hayden she’d never eat raw fruit and vegetables, fried food, or roughage again, Hayden tells Healthline.
Hayden went eight months without eating a fresh fruit or vegetable after her initial flare. “I can still remember having my first salad; I cried in the middle of the restaurant.” Unfortunately, popcorn, nuts, seeds, and diet soda exacerbate her symptoms.
Now that she’s had the disease for 13 years, Hayden’s discovered which foods are “safe” and which can be risky.
“For instance, I know cantaloupe can cause me some pain--but sometimes I’m in the mood for it, and I go for it and feel no symptoms,” she says. “Every person and every body is different — there isn’t one diet that works for everyone.”
“I often notice at family gatherings or when I’m at a friend’s house that, if I eat a bunch of food I don’t normally eat, it makes my Crohn’s act up,” she says. That’s why Hayden says the key to managing symptoms is being mindful of what you’re eating and recognizing which foods to steer clear of if it seems they trigger a flare.
Sara Lindberg, BS, M.Ed, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impacts our physical fitness and health.