Yogurt and IBS reactions

Eating yogurt can help alleviate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms since yogurt has probiotics, or “good bacteria,” which helps put healthy bacteria back in your gut. But yogurt is also on some lists of foods to avoid if you have IBS. So, which advice should you follow?

The truth is that IBS is different for everyone, from the cause to types of symptoms. The exact cause isn’t yet known, which means some people’s bodies may react poorly to yogurt while other people may find it helps their symptoms and condition. Only a doctor can help determine if you should eat yogurt to treat your IBS symptoms.

Multiple studies have been done over the years on the effects of probiotics in people with IBS, but the results are mixed. This isn’t surprising, though, as IBS has different causes in different people. Larger trials are needed before doctors can be confident enough to prescribe probiotics to people with IBS on a regular basis.

What research says

Research and studies done on yogurt and IBS all come up with mixed results. For example, a 2011 clinical trial in 122 people with IBS found a probiotic tablet significantly reduced IBS symptoms in 47 percent of participants taking the probiotic after four weeks. Another study used a combination of probiotics in 30 people with IBS and found that the mixture was considerably better than a placebo pill at improving IBS symptoms, including pain and gas — but not bloating.

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However, one study examined the probiotic in the Activia yogurt brand and found that it failed to benefit 274 participants with IBS and constipation. Two other studies looked at probiotics in 73 people with IBS and also had negative results.

If you want to try yogurt for IBS and you know that dairy doesn’t exacerbate your symptoms, look for yogurt that contains probiotics or has a seal that says “live and active cultures.” There are no official standards for labeling a yogurt as “probiotic,” but the National Yogurt Association (NYA) has created a “live and active cultures” seal.

To get this seal, manufacturers must provide NYA with lab evidence that their refrigerated products contain at least 100 million colony forming units (CFUs) per gram, and frozen products have at least 10 million CFUs per gram at the time of production. These live cultures are needed to make the milk thicken, but some yogurts may contain less than 1,000 bacteria per gram — which is quite small when it comes to bacteria. A list of NYA-approved brands can be found on the NYA website.

Dairy yogurt might be a problem on the FODMAP diet for two reasons. First, it contains fat, which can increase instances of diarrhea. Another reason is that some people with IBS are also lactose intolerant. This means your body can’t digest lactose, which is common in milk products.

For these people, yogurt can make symptoms worse, including stomach pain, bloating, and gas. If an increase in fat or allergic reaction to lactose causes IBS symptoms, you may want to try low-fat yogurt or non-dairy products, like soy, coconut, or almond milk yogurt.

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How to eat according to the FODMAP diet

FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.” This special diet focuses on limiting the amount of fermentable, short-chain carbohydrates in your diet since these types of carbohydrates may not be absorbed well by the small intestine. To decrease occurrence of IBS symptoms, you may want to follow the FODMAP diet.

Foods to avoid for IBS

  • garlic and onions
  • dairy products
  • foods with high fructose corn syrup
  • products containing wheat
  • vegetables like broccoli and artichokes
  • some fruits such as apples, apricots, and avocado
  • peas and black beans
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FODMAP-approved foods

  • dairy-free milks like almond or hemp milk
  • feta and brie cheese
  • fruits like oranges, pineapple, cantaloupe, and blueberries
  • vegetables like zucchini, lettuce, cucumbers, eggplant, and potatoes
  • protein like beef, tofu, chicken, and fish
  • wheat-free bread
  • oatmeal
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The real answer when it comes to yogurt and IBS is: It depends! Not everyone with IBS experiences the same symptoms, so you may want to test your reaction to yogurt before incorporating it fully into your diet. If dairy yogurt aggravates your symptoms, you should probably avoid it all together. But if you feel okay after having yogurt, there’s no reason to stop enjoying it.

Aim for yogurt with at least one 100 million CFUs, and as with most foods, enjoy it in moderation. Plain, low-fat yogurt is a better option since it doesn’t contain too much sugar or fat. There are also other ways to get probiotics, including non-dairy cultured yogurt, kefir, supplements, and fortified foods.

See your doctor if you’re not sure if yogurt is a good option for you. Without an expert opinion, it’s possible for yogurt to make your symptoms worse, depending on what causes your IBS. During your visit, you can also ask your doctor:

  • How do I know which foods are aggravating my symptoms?
  • Can you refer me to a nutritionist or dietitian who specializes in people with IBS?
  • How much yogurt can I eat at once?
  • Are any particular brands better or safer than others?
  • What about your other IBS patients; have they had success with yogurt?
  • Are there better ways to get probiotics from my diet?

Your doctor and a dietitian will be able to recommend the best options for your diet, lifestyle, and preferences.