Some people find that avoiding certain triggers like dairy, fried food, and gluten helps reduce their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms.

A balanced diet means eating a wide variety of nutritious foods. However, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may notice that certain foods trigger uncomfortable digestive symptoms.

The specific foods that trigger IBS are different for different people, so it’s not possible to draw up a single list of foods to avoid.

A doctor or dietitian can help guide an elimination diet while ensuring you still receive the key nutrients your body needs.

That said, many people will notice that avoiding some of the most common IBS triggers — including dairy, alcohol, and fried foods — results in:

  • more regular bowel movements
  • fewer cramps
  • less bloating

Keep reading to find out which foods could be making your IBS more uncomfortable.

Dietary fiber adds bulk to the diet and, generally speaking, it helps keep the gut healthy. Foods that are high in fiber include:

  • whole grains
  • vegetables
  • fruits

There are two types of fiber found in foods:

  • insoluble
  • soluble

Most plant foods contain both insoluble and soluble fiber, but some foods are high in one type.

  • Soluble fiber is concentrated in beans, fruits, and oat products.
  • Insoluble fiber is concentrated in whole grain products and vegetables.

Soluble fiber is a great choice for most people with IBS. The American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) recommends taking soluble fiber supplements, such as psyllium, as a cheap and effective treatment for IBS.

On the other hand, they say that insoluble fiber, such as wheat bran, may make IBS-related pain and bloating worse.

Fiber tolerance is different for different people. Foods rich in insoluble fiber may worsen symptoms in some people, but others with IBS have no issues with these foods. Additionally, some foods high in soluble fiber, like beans, can cause issues for some people with IBS.

As you can see, IBS eating plans are highly individualized. Certain fiber-rich foods may not agree with you while others may improve symptoms.

If foods like this cause symptoms, try taking soluble fiber supplements instead.

Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains that may cause problems for some people with IBS. Grains containing gluten can include:

  • rye
  • wheat
  • barley

Some people’s bodies have a serious immune reaction to gluten, known as celiac disease. Others may have a gluten intolerance. These conditions share symptoms with diarrhea-predominant IBS.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder. It affects the intestinal cells, resulting in poor absorption of nutrients. The causes of gluten intolerance, or nonceliac gluten sensitivity, are less well defined.

A small study from 2022 suggests that a gluten-free diet can improve IBS symptoms in a significant number of people studied, though the mechanism is unclear. Another small study from 2022 found that following a gluten-free diet improved pain frequency and severity.

Some doctors recommend that people with IBS avoid gluten to see if their symptoms improve. If you find that gluten makes your symptoms worse, you may want to try a gluten-free diet.

The good news is that more and more gluten-free products are coming onto the market. If you can’t do without pizza, pasta, or bread, you can always substitute them with gluten-free options.

Whole grain, nutritious alternatives to grains and flours that contain gluten are also available. These may include:

  • quinoa
  • sorghum
  • oats
  • buckwheat
  • almond flour
  • coconut flour
  • arrowroot flour

Oats are often processed in gluten-containing facilities, which increases the chance of cross-contamination with gluten. If you’re extremely sensitive to gluten, you should look for grain products that specify on the packaging that they’re processed in a gluten-free facility.

Dairy may cause problems in people with IBS for several reasons.

First, many types of dairy are high in fat, which can lead to diarrhea. Switching to low fat or nonfat dairy may help reduce your symptoms.

Second, many people with IBS report that milk triggers their symptoms. It’s unclear if people with IBS are more likely to have true lactose intolerance.

If you feel dairy or milk products cause you uncomfortable digestive problems, consider switching to dairy alternatives, such as plant milk and soy-based cheese. Some people may find relief by taking lactase enzymes when eating foods that contain dairy.

If you need to cut out dairy completely, you may need to obtain calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich foods can include:

  • greens
  • beans
  • nuts
  • sardines
  • seeds

Choosing calcium-rich foods is recommended over calcium supplements because supplements may increase your risk for cardiovascular conditions, as outlined in a 2017 study.

French fries and other fried foods are common in the typical Western diet. However, eating too much or eating them too often can cause health problems. The high fat content may be especially hard on the digestive system for people with IBS.

Frying food can actually change the chemical makeup of the food, making it more difficult to digest. This can lead to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.

For a more healthful option, try grilling, baking, or air-frying your favorite foods instead.

Beans, lentils, and peas are generally a great source of protein and fiber, but they can cause IBS symptoms. They contain compounds called oligosaccharides that are resistant to digestion by intestinal enzymes.

While beans can increase bulk in stool to help constipation, they also increase:

  • gas
  • bloating
  • cramps

You may want to try avoiding beans to see if this helps with your IBS symptoms. Or, when eating beans or lentils, soaking them overnight and then rinsing them before cooking can help the body digest them more easily.

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 taking a quick walk instead.

Highly processed foods tend to contain a lot of:

  • added salt
  • sugar
  • fat

They also contain many substances that you would not typically use in food prepared at home.

Examples of highly processed foods can include:

  • chips
  • premade frozen meals
  • processed meats like hot dogs and fish sticks
  • deep-fried foods
  • sweetened breakfast cereals
  • sugary beverages
  • energy and protein bars

Eating too much of these foods can lead to health problems for anyone. In addition, they often contain additives or preservatives that might trigger IBS flare-ups.

A 2019 review found that eating four servings of ultra-processed foods per day was linked to a higher risk of developing IBS, along with:

When possible, making meals at home or buying fresh produce is a healthful alternative to buying processed foods.

Sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s good for your health — especially when it comes to IBS.

Sugar-free sweeteners are common in:

  • sugarless candy
  • gum
  • most diet drinks
  • mouthwash

Commonly used sugar substitutes can include:

  • sugar alcohols
  • artificial sweeteners
  • natural zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia

Research also shows that sugar alcohols are hard for the body to absorb, especially in people with IBS, causing:

  • gas
  • digestive discomfort
  • laxative effects

Common sugar alcohols that may cause IBS symptoms include:

  • sorbitol
  • mannitol

Artificial sweeteners, which can have negative effects on health, can contain ingredients like:

Reading the ingredient labels of any sugar-free products can help you avoid these compounds.

Chocolate bars and chocolate candy can trigger IBS because they’re typically high in fat and sugar, and commonly contain lactose and caffeine. Some people experience constipation after eating chocolate.

Some vegan options for chocolate lovers may be more tolerable for people with IBS.

Alcoholic drinks are a common trigger for people with IBS. This is because of the way the body digests alcohol. Also, drinking alcohol can lead to dehydration, which can affect your digestion.

Beer may cause additional harmful effects because it often contains gluten.

Wines and mixed drinks can contain high amounts of sugar.

Limiting alcoholic beverages may help reduce symptoms related to IBS. If you choose to drink alcohol, consider a gluten-free beer or a drink mixed with plain seltzer and without artificial sweeteners or added sugar.

Garlic and onions can provide flavor in your food, but they contain fructans, an oligosaccharide, which can be difficult for your intestines to break down. This may cause gas.

Painful gas and cramping can result from raw garlic and onions. Even cooked versions of these foods can be triggers for some people with IBS.

Cruciferous vegetables are also difficult for the body to digest — which is why they may trigger symptoms in those with IBS. This can include vegetables like:

  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • cabbage
  • Brussels sprouts

When your digestive system breaks these foods down, it causes gas, and at times, constipation. These vegetables may even cause these symptoms in people without IBS.

Cooking vegetables typically makes them easier to digest, so try roasting or sautéing broccoli and cauliflower if eating them raw bothers your digestive system.

Many doctors recommend that people with IBS follow the low FODMAP diet. This diet focuses on limiting foods rich in certain types of carbohydrates.

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharaides, and polyols. These are fermentable, short-chain carbohydrates.

Research suggests that the small intestine cannot easily absorb foods that contain FODMAPs. They may cause:

  • bloating
  • gas
  • stomach pain

Foods that contain FODMAPS can include:

  • most dairy products
  • some fruits, including apples, cherries, and mango
  • some vegetables, including beans, lentils, cabbage, and cauliflower
  • wheat and rye
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • sweeteners, such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol

While avoiding the foods above, you can still enjoy a huge range of other foods with low FODMAP scores.

For starters, any foods that don’t contain carbohydrates or are low in FODMAPS are allowed in this diet. This can include:

  • fish and other meats
  • eggs
  • butter and oils
  • hard cheeses

Other healthful low FODMAP foods that you can enjoy may include:

  • lactose-free dairy products
  • some fruits, including bananas, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, oranges, and pineapple
  • some vegetables, including carrots, celery, eggplant, green beans, kale, pumpkin, spinach, and potato
  • quinoa, rice, millet, and cornmeal
  • firm and medium tofu
  • pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds

But eating a large serving of low FODMAP foods may still provide a large amount of FODMAPs.

The low FODMAP diet involves elimination and reintroduction phases and may be difficult to follow without the help of a healthcare professional.

If you’re interested in trying out the low FODMAP diet, talk with a healthcare professional trained in digestive conditions, such as a registered dietitian or gastroenterologist.

The following includes frequently asked questions about IBS and diet.

What foods irritate IBS the most?

Fried foods and foods that are high in fat can be harder for the body to digest. In people with IBS, they may cause uncomfortable side effects like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

What foods help settle IBS?

Depending on whether you have diarrhea or constipation, different foods may help relieve your symptoms. If you have IBS diarrhea, staying hydrated and eating foods that are gentle on the stomach and easy to digest may help. If you have IBS constipation, stay hydrated and try foods that may help move things along, like prunes or peaches and lean protein.

What triggers IBS?

Certain ingredients and drinks can trigger IBS symptoms. But these triggers can vary from person to person. Some common ones include artificial sugars, gluten, fried foods, alcohol, and other foods that may be hard to digest. Lifestyle factors like stress or gastrointestinal illnesses can also trigger an IBS flare-up.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s digestion and food triggers are different. Some people with IBS can tolerate foods that others cannot.

Get to know your body and learn which foods make you feel the best and limit those that cause uncomfortable symptoms.

Keeping a food and symptom diary can help you figure out which foods to eat and avoid.

If you need extra help with your diet in relation to IBS, scheduling an appointment with a registered dietitian is a good choice.