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Anyone with IBS knows how frustrating the condition can be. Most people don’t have a chronic form of IBS. But the condition can be made worse by environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle, and stress. Learning to control these aspects of your life can make living with and managing IBS easier.
IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is a disorder that impacts the large intestine. For most people, it’s normal to occasionally experience discomfort such as cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and even constipation. But for someone with IBS, these symptoms can be a constant presence. Even though the specific cause behind IBS isn’t known yet, experts do know that there are a few common issues that contribute to the disease. These include:
For some people, medications can work to minimize the symptoms. But often, the foods in your daily diet can be a major reason for that abdominal discomfort. Because of this, it’s important to identify common foods that are known to irritate and increase IBS symptoms so you can avoid them and reduce your discomfort.
Depending on how severe your symptoms are, it can be helpful to follow a Low FODMAP Diet under the direction of your physician for no more than 6-8 weeks. FODMAP references the types of foods that are most likely to aggravate your symptoms. The acronym stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, And Polyols.
According to research, FODMAPs are carbohydrate-based foods that aren’t properly absorbed in the small intestines. They not only increase the amount of fluid in your bowels, but can also cause more gas, bloating, and reduce digestion speed. This can lead to pain and diarrhea. However, studies with IBS patients have found that reducing your FODMAP intake can help to improve your IBS symptoms on a short-term basis.
So what foods should you either cut out completely or greatly reduce? Research has shown that these 11 foods are most likely to act as a “trigger,” irritating your intestine and causing IBS symptoms.
It’s important to note that not every food listed here will be a trigger for everyone diagnosed with IBS. To determine if any of these foods are contributing to your IBS symptoms, eliminate them entirely and then slowly reintroduce them one by one, once a week. This will help you determine whether a food is, in fact, a trigger and which ones are harmless for you.
Most of us believe that fiber is good for us. It helps to keep us regular. But not all fiber is created equal. Specifically, we’re talking about insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber doesn’t break down in your digestive system but instead passes through your digestive tract intact. Although insoluble fiber is normally good for your body because it can prevent constipation, it can make bloating worse for people with IBS.
Instead, opt for soluble fiber – the type that does dissolve in the digestive system and is loaded with prebiotics that feed good gut bacteria. Common foods that offer soluble fiber include:
Gluten is a protein typically found in grains. However, many people are allergic to gluten (celiac disease) or have a severe food sensitivity to it. Although some people with IBS have no symptoms in response to gluten, because wheat is not fully digested and contains fructans, it can cause an overlap in symptoms similar to those for someone diagnosed with IBS.
Researchers are still determining exactly why the overlap exists, but studies show a relief in symptoms by avoiding gluten and being tested to rule it out as a trigger.
Although there are many gluten-free options on the market today, many are processed or substituted with corn or cauliflower - both of which amplify symptoms in people with IBS. Opting for potato, rice, and almond-based alternatives can be safer and are growing as bread and snack options.
Dairy products are a common culprit behind digestive discomfort for more than just people with IBS. Most people are familiar with the condition lactose intolerance, where people aren’t able to properly process lactose from dairy products. But for people with IBS, dairy can be a two-part problem: First, many people with IBS are also lactose intolerant or have a severe food sensitivity. For others, the fat in dairy can encourage diarrhea.
To avoid trace triggers of lactose (even in Lactaid milk) and high fat, consider swapping out whole milk dairy for low fat or nonfat alternatives. Instead, opt for alternatives like oat or rice milk, nut yogurts, and seed-based cheeses.
While it can be challenging to cut out caffeine entirely, it is a known digestive irritant. Even though coffee tends to be the top culprit, it’s not the only substance that’s high in caffeine. If you have IBS, you should also consider limiting or completely removing caffeine by way of coffee, sodas, energy drinks, and even chocolate. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that even decaffeinated coffee still contains some caffeine. Many people find they can tolerate black or green tea better, though not in excessive quantities.
These sugar alternatives can seem like a smart option if you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, but they come with side effects that can make IBS worse. Common culprits include sugar alcohol, polyols, artificial sweeteners, and sugar substitutes, although you’re probably more familiar with the ingredient names such as aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium. Foods that will typically feature these ingredients include sugar-free chewing gum, soft drinks, candy, and canned foods.
Despite being taught that beans and legumes are good for us, it can be hard as a person with IBS to believe it. Specific types of beans and legumes are more difficult for people with IBS to digest, and others aren’t. In general, variations like lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans that have been soaked, sprouted and cooked are easier to digest, while black, pinto, and red kidney should be on your list of items to avoid until you’ve worked your microbiome up to digesting them.
It shouldn’t be surprising that alcohol also makes the list of potential IBS triggers. But the reason why is multifaceted: First, many alcohols contain gluten which we’ve already outlined can irritate your digestive tract.
Second, mixed drinks can also be high in sugar – another known trigger of IBS symptoms. Finally, alcohol dehydrates you. Dehydration can impact how your liver processes the alcohol and your overall digestion.
If your IBS symptoms are severe, you should eliminate alcohol entirely. But if your symptoms are only mild, consider reducing your consumption, choosing gluten-free beers and spirits, or opting for mixed drinks made with fresh fruits instead of sugary sodas, juices, or seltzers.
These can be tasty flavor additives for your meal, but both contain fructans (or oligosaccharides) that can be difficult for your digestive system. Since both garlic and onions are common culprits for IBS gas symptoms, it may make sense for you and your doctor to eliminate them from your diet temporarily. However, they are both packed with prebiotic fibers essential to feeding good gut bacteria (some studies show even better than fruits and other vegetables).
You may find you can tolerate garlic or green onion-infused olive oil, or the green parts of spring onions. Eating them raw will have more significant effects on your digestive system, but they can still trigger gas even when cooked.
You might be surprised to find that “cabbage vegetables” also includes other healthy options like broccoli and cauliflower. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts may be packed with nutrients, but they’re harder for your body to digest, causing gas and constipation – landing them on the “avoid” list.
Fruits have a very specific type of sugar called fructose, and if the fructose levels are too high, it can create the same symptoms as lactose intolerance. Consider removing high-fructose fruits like apples, pears, or dried fruits to see if they could be worsening your IBS symptoms.
Constantly eating fried foods can increase your risk for other diseases like hypertension and heart disease, but if you have IBS, you might not realize that fried foods are harder for your body to digest compared to their baked or grilled counterparts. Limit your consumption of fried foods and opt for grilling or baking your dishes in the future.
IBS can be a distressing condition with symptoms that can make life uncomfortable, to say the least. But learning how to adjust the foods you eat and embracing a high fiber, low fat diet (or in extreme, short term cases a low FODMAP diet with your doctor) gives you better control over your diagnosis, while also improving your quality of life. Although you might not be able to totally eliminate all of these trigger foods, limiting them is a smart step in the right direction.
Want to learn more about how dietary changes can help ease your IBS symptoms? Start by taking our three-minute assessment.