The 5 Worst Things to Eat for IBS
Going to the bathroom is generally a good thing, because your body needs to get rid of toxins and stay regular. Yet when those trips come with abdominal pain, diarrhea or other abnormal bowel movements, and cramping that never seems to go away (despite hitting the toilet), it doesn't seem so great after all. And if this is happening to you often, you might be suffering from IBS.
Learn more: What Is a Low-FODMAP Diet?
What's IBS? Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. "In a nutshell, IBS is caused by changes in the way the GI tract works. Unlike other GI disorders such as Crohn's or celiac disease, IBS does not damage the GI tract, but the reality is that the symptoms can be severe and debilitating for many people, affecting their day-to-day life," says EA Stewart, M.B.A., RD, CLT. "I've had clients quit their jobs and give up traveling because their IBS symptoms have been so severe," she adds. Yikes.
Symptoms can vary and everyone is different, but common IBS symptoms often include bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. Although there is no single or specific treatment for IBS, you can manage symptoms successfully through diet, medication and lifestyle changes, or through a combination of all of these approaches, she says.
The easiest approach is through diet, as you can definitely shift your eating patterns to help alleviate IBS symptoms. Choosing the right foods for your plate and eliminating common offenders is a great first step to see if you experience relief.
There's no "one-size-fits-all approach" when it comes to IBS and diet, yet there are certain foods that might not sit well for you. "I generally start with having clients try temporarily eliminating some of these foods, typically for one month. After that, we slowly reintroduce them, one by one, to see which foods they can tolerate. The long-term goal is always to include as wide a variety of foods as possible, while minimizing symptoms," she says.
The choice is up to you, but try nixing these foods from your diet if you are struggling to manage IBS and see if it helps! You can thank us later.
Many dairy products, including milk, yogurt and ice cream, are high in lactose, a milk sugar that isn't always digested well and can lead to gas and bloating, explains Stewart. "But most hard cheeses are lactose-free or low in lactose and are generally tolerated well with IBS," she says, so if you can't resist hard cheese and some fresh fruit, you may not need to give that dynamic duo up. "In addition, there are many lactose-free dairy products available, so someone with IBS who enjoys dairy doesn't necessarily have to eliminate it from their diet," she says. Still, if dairy seems to be a problem for you, consider switching to plant-based milk, ice cream, yogurt and cheese products, which shouldn't be too hard as the nondairy market is booming now anyway!
Though not technically a food, alcohol needs to be mentioned, as it can definitely make IBS symptoms worse, says Stewart. "Alcohol is a gut irritant and can increase intestinal permeability, potentially leading to gut dysbiosis. In addition, alcohol prevents the colon (large intestine) from reabsorbing water, which can cause diarrhea after drinking," she says. Adding this potential cause of diarrhea when you're already more prone to it from IBS can be a recipe for disaster.
Sugar alcohols are often used in packaged foods, protein bars, soft drinks, lower-calorie desserts and more, as they don't cause blood sugar to spike, as natural sugar does. "This includes xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol and others. These products have become popular because many of them don't impact blood sugar and insulin levels like traditional sweeteners do," she explains. However, sugar alcohols are partially resistant to digestion (in a similar way to fiber) and may cause stomach discomfort and bloating in some people, she says. If you have IBS, you might be especially susceptible to the effect.
High-Fat and Fried Foods
Eating tons of high-fat foods, and especially fried foods (put down the battered cod for fish and chips!), in large quantities can be overpowering for those with a sensitive belly. "These foods can slow down digestion, leading to GI discomfort. I've found the amount of dietary fat my IBS clients can tolerate varies between individuals, though," Stewart says. So, this may not be a problem at all or it could be a huge trigger-it really depends on the person.
If you are sensitive to fat, but still want to enjoy your favorite foods, try using an air fryer! It cuts out nearly all of the oil, and you can still enjoy fast-food favorites (like our Crispy Air-Fryer French Fries!).
What's that, right? A low-FODMAP diet eliminates certain carbohydrate-containing foods that are high in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), which can contribute to painful IBS symptoms, explains Stewart. In a nutshell, FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that aren't digested well and may lead to IBS symptoms.
A small sample of high-FODMAP foods includes: apples, asparagus, garlic, onions, wheat, cauliflower, black beans, peaches, honey and cashews. You can get a complete list of high- and low-FODMAP foods at Monash University's FODMAP website.
Try to reduce your consumption of these foods, and look for better swaps for foods in the same category (but lower on the FODMAP scale) to help plan meals.
What to Eat If You Have IBS
"I encourage a diet rich in vegetables, some fruit, nuts, seeds, eggs, lean meat/poultry/fatty fish (if you're not vegetarian or vegan), healthy fats and whole grains," says Stewart. (Learn more about how to eat to manage your IBS.)
"Although foods rich in soluble fiber may help IBS symptoms, foods high in insoluble fiber, such as whole wheat, wheat bran, raisins and corn bran may further aggravate IBS symptoms in some people. In addition, other sources of soluble fiber, such as lentils, apples, pears and beans, might not be tolerated, as they are sources of FODMAPs," she says.
Beyond fiber, eat probiotic-rich foods to keep your gut happy. "Although studies (using supplements) are mixed, some strains of probiotics have been found to be beneficial for IBS. I encourage my clients to try low-FODMAP, probiotic-rich foods including miso, tempeh, lactose-free yogurt and kefir, and kimchi and sauerkraut (read labels for FODMAPs)," says Stewart. Besides, these foods are great for you, and they're delicious!