When your gastrointestinal tract isn't quite 100%, what should you eat and what should you avoid? Plus, when to call your doctor.

Brierley Horton, M.S., R.D.
January 13, 2020

The stomach bug—or, more officially, acute gastroenteritis—is incredibly common, and outbreaks peak in winter and spring months. The most common symptoms are nausea and diarrhea. "Vomiting, fever and abdominal pain often accompany it too," says Starr Steinhilber, M.D., M.P.H., an internist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Most cases are caused by viruses, with symptoms lasting two to eight days."

The stomach bug isn't the only cause of symptoms like these: sometimes it's food poisoning, or maybe you don't know what the culprit was, but your GI system is, well … off.

When this is you, you want foods that are gentle on your stomach and easy for your body to digest. Ideally, you will choose foods that deliver some nutrition and don't further aggravate your digestive tract. It can be hard to know where to start, especially when food still doesn't seem appealing.

"Fluids, food—as best you can keep down—and time are the best treatments," says Steinhilber. But what exactly should you eat and avoid? Here's how to navigate the major food categories.

Which fruits should you eat, and which should you skip?

Easy-to-digest fruits include bananas and avocados. Avoid other raw fruits, fruit skins and most berries. They all contribute fiber, and although fiber is healthy, your body doesn't digest some of it. As a result, when it gets to your large intestine, it can cause gas and bloating, neither of which are welcome after a bout with a GI illness.

Cooked and canned fruits, however, are lower in fiber than their raw counterparts and thus are easier to digest. Choose them! There are also some fruits that contain types of natural sugars that can cause gas: pears, peaches, apples, prunes. Consider limiting or avoiding those even if they're cooked.

What vegetables should you avoid, and which ones should you eat?

As with fruit, vegetables also contribute fiber so skip raw veggies altogether and choose cooked or canned ones wisely. Even when they're cooked, you may want to avoid high-raffinose (aka gas-causing) veggies, which include beans (the biggest offender!), cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus. Consider skipping onions and artichokes too, as they contain fructose, another natural sugar that causes gas.

We recommend cooked veggies without seeds, such as spinach, pumpkin, carrots and beets.

Grains to eat, plus which ones to avoid

Avoid whole grains altogether (because, ahem, fiber!) and lean on white, refined grains and grain products, such as white rice, white bread, white bagels and peeled white potatoes. Keep this advice in mind if you're selecting cereal, too, and remember that many cereals have fiber added to them, so check the ingredient list and the grams of fiber on the nutrition label.

Easy-to-digest proteins

Most meats, poultry and seafood are gentle on your GI tract and not too hard for your body to digest. Choose baked, broiled or grilled versions, though, and skip fried options as greasy foods can be harder to digest. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, tofu may be an easy-to-digest choice. Go slow with reintroducing other sources of vegetarian protein, such as legumes, beans and nuts.

Here are 5 more tips to keep it easy on your digestive system.

  • Choose plain drinks. Hydration is important, but you want to be careful when you choose what to drink. For some, carbonation or caffeine (or both) can be irritating. For others, the sugars in sweetened drinks are problematic. So start with water or an herbal tea and then slowly (and in small quantities) introduce other beverages. Skip alcohol altogether, as well as juices with pulp.
  • Skip spices, at least temporarily. We're talking about the hot ones that can sometimes cause heartburn or indigestion.
  • Go slow with dairy. Even if you aren't lactose-intolerant, after a bout of GI illness, some people experience a temporary lactose intolerance. Don't worry—your ability to digest dairy should bounce back within a few days or weeks. Reintroduce it slowly and choose lower-lactose dairy products like Cheddar and yogurt.
  • Consider a probiotic. "Though there are not well-established studies to support improvement with probiotics," explains Steinhilber, "there are not many side effects and many doctors suggest them."
  • Hydrate while you eat. Broth-based soups and smoothies can be good for a sensitive stomach and help you stay hydrated at the same time. Try a fruit smoothie made with almond milk, or chicken soup made with white rice or pasta.

When Should You See a Doctor?

"If you're showing signs of severe dehydration—such as low blood pressure, high heart rate or confusion—or experiencing bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, or your symptoms last longer than a week, you should go to your doctor," says Steinhilber. Other reasons to call your doctor would be if you have a significant chronic medical condition, were recently hospitalized or are taking antibiotics.

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