What to Eat When You Have Diarrhea
Diarrhea is no fun, especially if you're not near a bathroom. What can you do to help slow the flow when diarrhea strikes? And are there any foods that help or hurt? That depends, says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University. Katz says nutrition can sometimes be the fix—but not always.
Read on for the scoop on what causes diarrhea, what to eat when you have diarrhea, what foods to avoid and what drinks can help you feel better.
What Causes Diarrhea?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, acute diarrhea typically lasts just a few days. Food poisoning is often the culprit, although other things—the flu, parasites and even some antibiotics and other medicines—can send you racing for the nearest bathroom. If you're visiting a place where the food or water is contaminated, you may get struck with travelers' diarrhea, even if people who live there are unaffected.
Chronic diarrhea lasts four weeks or longer. It can be a sign of something more serious, like Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also be caused by an untreated infection or parasite. If you're experiencing chronic diarrhea, talk to your healthcare provider.
Symptoms of Diarrhea
Besides having runny, watery poop, you may feel cramping, stomach pain, nausea or bloating. And depending on the cause, you may also have a fever or chills.
Best Foods to Eat
Most likely, you aren't going to feel like eating much, especially if you have stomach cramping or pain. With acute diarrhea, the key is getting over whatever caused the problem in the first place, which usually means waiting things out. In this case, "food isn't the solution," says Katz.
Once you are ready to try food, go easy. For years, many experts recommended the BRAT diet—bananas, rice, applesauce and toast—all soft, bland foods once touted as easy on kids' tummies. It was also thought that the low fiber content of BRAT could help firm up the poop. However, while it probably won't hurt you, "there's not much evidence to support it," notes Katz.
If you have chronic diarrhea, what you eat—and don't eat—can help. "Adjusting your diet will make the biggest difference in chronic diarrhea," says Katz. Cut out foods you seem to be sensitive to, like milk or nuts, for a while, and then gradually add them back. Your doctor may suggest keeping a "diarrhea diary" to track which foods seem to trigger your symptoms.
You might want to consider probiotics—foods with "good" bacteria. Some research suggests foods that contain probiotics may help prevent or treat diarrhea. For example, a 2022 review in Nutrition and Health suggests that fermented foods, which contain probiotics, seem to help treat diarrhea by reducing the severity and duration of it. Probiotics are sometimes used to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other chronic digestive conditions. You can find them in dairy foods like yogurt, aged cheeses and kefir, and in nondairy foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and tempeh. They're also available as supplements. Check with your healthcare provider first, though, before supplementing with probiotics.
Foods to Avoid
Once your appetite returns, be kind to your stomach.
- Avoid high-fiber foods like beans, raw vegetables or fresh fruits like apples or peaches—they can be hard on your system.
- Alcohol, caffeine and dairy products can all make diarrhea worse, so nix the cocktails, coffee and ice cream while your stomach recovers.
- Ditto for greasy or spicy foods.
- Finally, beware of hidden culprits. Diet sodas, sugarless gum and candy made with artificial sweeteners like sorbitol may trigger an unexpected trip to the toilet.
What to Drink
Sip water—lots of it—to replace the fluids you're losing out of the other end. How do you know if you're drinking enough? Use the pee test.
In general, you should pee at least every three hours, and the urine should be a pale straw color. "If you don't need to pee or if your pee is dark, you need to drink more," advises Katz. Just about any food will help replace lost electrolytes, but if you don't feel like eating, Katz recommends drinking something with sodium and potassium, like a sports or pediatric electrolytes drink—just watch out for the added sugar. Seltzer water can be a great choice as well.
When to See Your Healthcare Provider
Get medical help right away if you have diarrhea along with a fever or severe stomach pain, or if you feel too sick to drink anything. You want to rule out any serious problems like diverticulitis (an inflammation or infection in the colon) or appendicitis, says Katz. Otherwise, see your healthcare provider if you don't start to feel better in a day or two. If you have had chronic diarrhea for more than three or four weeks, call your healthcare provider so they can investigate the cause of it.
Diarrhea is no fun, but here's the good news: It usually clears up on its own in a few days. Give yourself time to rest and recover, and your poop problems will soon be, well, behind you.