If your doctor has diagnosed your sensitive stomach as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may find that what you eat and when you eat it makes a huge difference in how you feel (and how many trips you take to the bathroom).
Know this, however: There is no exact IBS diet. That’s because what works for you may not work for someone else with IBS. But there definitely are things you can do to minimize your symptoms.
Foods to Eat With IBS
When choosing what’s on your menu, start with this ground rule: Plan a well-balanced diet spread throughout the day. Aim for three meals and two to three snacks that are high in fiber and low in fat, the IBS Network suggests.
A balanced diet includes foods from the major food groups: meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, cereals, pasta and potatoes and dairy. That doesn’t mean eating all you want from each of these food groups. Watch your portion sizes.
Go for high-fiber options. Some people with IBS feel better when they increase the fiber content of their meals, the GI Society notes. However, don’t do it all at once. Go slow as you try to add fiber. Also, be sure you’re drinking lots of water to go with that fiber.
Get your protein. Good sources include meat, poultry and fish. Most people with IBS tolerate protein with no problem.
Foods to Avoid With IBS
Many people with IBS find they can’t tolerate heavily spiced foods, the GI Society says. Again, you need to experiment and see which spices sit well with you and which don’t.
Fried foods may be off limits. Many people with IBS find that fried foods trigger their symptoms, according to the GI Society. So, skip the fried chicken and onion rings. Safer options include foods that are grilled, broiled, baked or steamed with very little or no oils. Cooking spray may be a great substitute.
Dairy is also a concern for some with IBS, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Milk and other dairy products such as cheese and ice cream contain lactose, a sugar. You need an intestinal enzyme to break down this sugar. About 70 percent of adults around the globe don’t produce enough of this enzyme to absorb this milk sugar in their small intestine. The undigested lactose passes to the colon where bacteria ferment it, which can cause bloating and gas. If you’re lactose intolerant and have IBS, you might want to skip dairy. The one exception to ditching dairy products is yogurt. Many people with IBS find they can tolerate it.
Play Detective for Your Personal IBS Diet
It helps to do a little investigating. Keep a food journal where you record what you ate, when you ate it and any reaction you had, good or bad, the IBS Network suggests. (Allow any food that gives you a bad reaction at least three tries before deciding to avoid it.)
If you have trouble figuring out what to eat, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian. RDs can be a big help, and your consult may be covered by your health insurance plan, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you’re ready to put a potential trigger back into your diet, consume only a very small portion. And never introduce more than one trigger food at a time so that you can identify which one is causing problems.
Here are some more guidelines to follow when making your daily food choices.
Cook it. If you cook your vegetables, you shouldn’t have any worries, the GI Society says. The one exception may be gas-causing veggies like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. You may find they cause too much painful gas, cooked or raw. Then again, you may not, and you may find that cooking them makes them tolerable.
Skip the skins. Some people have trouble with fruits that have skins (thick and thin) such as melons, oranges, grapefruits and apples. Again, see what your stomach can tolerate.
Order decaf. Caffeine can cause diarrhea, a symptom of IBS, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. So, skip it. Remember that caffeine is not only in coffee and tea but also chocolate, some sodas and some over-the-counter headache medicines.
Ban the bran. Bran may be the exception to the high-fiber rule. Some people find that bran aggravates their symptoms, the GI Society says. If you’re keeping a food journal, you will find out if you’re one of them.
Bust the bubbles. See the bubbles in the glass of seltzer? They can do to your GI tract what they do to your drink. They can cause you to feel gassy, so go for plain water. Same with soda. (Most soda has caffeine, too.)
Watch the seeds. Most people with IBS can tolerate bread, pasta, rice, crackers and bagels whether it’s rye, whole wheat, white or multigrain. It’s the seeds that may bother you, the GI Society says. Before ordering a sesame or everything bagel at the deli, experiment and find out if seeds will be a problem for you.
Skip the sauce. Heavily oiled and spicy sauces are another trigger food for many with IBS. If you want to have a food that’s saucy, get the sauce on the side so you can control your portion and eat less of it.
FODMAP Diet for IBS
Some people with IBS may benefit from what’s known as a low-FODMAP diet, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.” These are short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols found in many foods that ferment rapidly once inside the gut. As a result, your body may not handle them well. Examples: Oligosaccharides include wheat, rye, onion, garlic; monosaccharides include honey, apples, pears, mango; and polyols include stone fruits, sugar-free mints/gum, mushrooms and cauliflower, the GI Society says.
A low-FODMAP diet for IBS can be difficult to follow, the foundation notes. Here’s where your registered dietitian can help. An RD can explain which FODMAP foods you should reduce or eliminate for your diet and see if they relieve your symptoms. Sit down with your RD after six to eight weeks and determine which foods you should continue to eliminate and which ones you may be able to gradually reintroduce. FODMAP does not mean completely eliminating all these foods from your diet, nor is it a lifetime diet, the foundation says. You may find that a low-FODMAP diet helps when symptoms flare and that you can have some of these restricted foods when your stomach is calm.
Like any diet, the low-FODMAP plan is not a cure for IBS but a way to help manage symptoms over time.
Key Points: Best Way to Eat With IBS
There is no specific IBS diet that works for everyone. You should plan your meals so that you eat a well-balanced and healthy menu and skip the fried, spicy and saucy foods that are likely to cause you bathroom trips.
When you have IBS, you have to determine through experimentation what are the best and worst foods for you. If you keep track of what you eat and how it makes you feel, you will see patterns emerge and can decide what to eliminate and what to keep in your meal plans.
A low-FODMAP diet may be worth trying. Work with an RD if you’re going this route and re-evaluate your successes and failures after several weeks. When you reintroduce foods, go slow and add small amounts.
Remember, your diet won’t cure your IBS, but it can make your symptoms more tolerable.
- IBS Diet: The Foods You Can Eat, GI Society - https://badgut.org/information-centre/health-nutrition/ibs-the-foods-you-can-eat/
- What Can I Eat? TheIBSNetwork.org - https://www.theibsnetwork.org/diet/so-what-can-i-eat/
- RDNs and Medical Nutrition Therapy Services, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - https://www.eatright.org/food/resources/learn-more-about-rdns/rdns-and-medical-nutrition-therapy-services
- The Low FODMAP Diet Approach: Dietary Triggers for IBS Symptoms, International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders - https://aboutibs.org/2016-02-25-23-58-22.html
- Relief of IBS Symptoms with a Low FODMAP Diet, GI Society - https://badgut.org/information-centre/health-nutrition/low-fodmap-diet/
- 5 foods to avoid if you have IBS, Johns Hopkins Medicine - https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/5-foods-to-avoid-if-you-have-ibs