A healthy diet generally consists of eating a wide variety of nutritious foods in moderation. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may notice your symptoms are triggered after you eat certain foods.
Symptoms can vary between people, so there’s not one list of off-limit foods. But by avoiding some of the most common triggers for IBS symptoms, you may notice more regularity, fewer cramps, and less bloating.
Keep reading to find out which foods could be making your IBS more uncomfortable.
1. Insoluble fiber
Fiber adds healthy bulk to the diet. Whole grains, vegetables, and fruits contain fiber. Although fiber tolerance is different for different people, insoluble fiber may cause or worsen diarrhea in some people with IBS.
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
Insoluble fiber content in whole grains may cause IBS symptoms. Certain grains can cause other problems — namely rye, wheat, and barley, which contain gluten.
Gluten is a type of protein some people are allergic to. This condition is known as celiac disease. It can cause symptoms like those of diarrhea-predominant IBS.
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. This is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. People with this condition may experience the same negative side effects and gastrointestinal symptoms of gluten ingestion as those with celiac disease.
Many people with IBS are also gluten intolerant. Some studies have shown that gluten sensitivity may be involved in the development of IBS symptoms for some people, and gluten-free diets may improve these symptoms. However, everyone is different. Discovering how gluten affects IBS will be based on the individual.
The good news is that 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 them with gluten-free options.
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. And second, many people with IBS are lactose intolerant. If you’re lactose intolerant and have IBS, you might want to consider dairy alternatives like rice milk and soy cheese.
If you need to cut out dairy completely to make your life more comfortable, consider asking your doctor if you need a calcium supplement.
4. Fried foods
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. Frying food can actually change the chemical makeup of the food, making it more difficult to digest. Consider grilling or baking your favorite foods for a healthier option.
5. Beans and legumes
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.
6. Caffeinated drinks
Some people swear by their morning coffee for digestive regularity. But like all caffeinated drinks, coffee has a stimulating effect on the intestines that can cause diarrhea. Coffee, sodas, and energy drinks that contain caffeine can be triggers for people with IBS. If you need an energy boost or pick-me-up, consider eating a small snack or going for a quick walk.
7. Processed foods
Some people don’t always put a lot of thought into what’s in the processed foods they eat. People with IBS might want to avoid these foods. Processed foods often contain additives or preservatives that might trigger IBS flare-ups.
A large number of processed foods, like chips or premade frozen meals, are also 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.
8. Sugar-free sweeteners
Sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s good for your health — especially when it comes to IBS.
These sweeteners, also known as sugar alcohols, polyols, artificial sweeteners, and sugar substitutes, are often found in sugarless candy, gum, most diet drinks, and even mouthwash. These products contain ingredients like sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and aspartame. These ingredients are hard for your body to absorb, especially when you have IBS. Make sure you read the ingredient labels of any sugar-free product you consume.
Chocolate bars and chocolate candy can trigger IBS because of their concentration of caffeine and their high sugar content. Some people experience constipation after eating chocolate. There are some vegan options for chocolate lovers that people with IBS often find to be more tolerable.
Alcoholic beverages are a big trigger for people with IBS because of the way the body digests alcohol. Beer is risky to begin with because it often contains gluten, and wines and mixed drinks usually contain sugar.
Alcohol can also be dehydrating, which can affect your liver function and digestion.
Limiting alcoholic beverages may help reduce symptoms related to IBS. If you have a drink, consider a gluten-free beer or a drink that’s mixed with plain seltzer and doesn’t have artificial sweeteners or added sugar.
11. Garlic and onions
Garlic and onions are great flavoring agents in your food, but they also can be difficult for your intestines to break down, which causes gas. Painful gas and cramping can result from raw garlic and onions, and even cooked versions of these foods can be triggers.
12. Broccoli and cauliflower
Broccoli and cauliflower are difficult for people to digest — which is why they are IBS triggers. When your intestine breaks these foods down it causes gas, and at times, constipation, even for people without IBS.
Grating the heads of broccoli and cauliflower (also known as ricing) might make the digestive process simpler for your small intestine. But it won’t eliminate the risk of painful gas and diarrhea that IBS triggers can cause.
What to eat instead
The FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharaides, and Polyols) diet focuses on reducing or eliminating fermentable, short-chain carbohydrates. Research suggests that high FODMAP foods are 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 can enjoy while on a FODMAP diet include:
- lactose-free milk or other dairy-free alternatives
- cheeses like feta or brie
- fruits like kiwi, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, and strawberries
- vegetables like lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, bok choy, turnips, potatoes, and eggplant
- proteins like tofu, chicken, beef, and fish
It’s important to remember that everyone’s digestion and food triggers will be different. Some people with IBS can tolerate certain foods, while others may not. Get to know your body and learn which foods make you feel the best, and limit those that you react to.
If you need extra help with your diet in relation to IBS, it’s a good idea to seek guidance from a registered dietitian.