If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the foods you eat can make all the difference in how you feel. Some foods can trigger symptoms, and limiting them may mean less abdominal pain, bloating, gas and constipation.
Find out which foods may be aggravating your IBS and what you can choose instead, so you can enjoy your meals with less stress.
Lactose is a sugar that's tough to digest, according to Harvard Health Publishing, as well as a FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols). FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that can cause gastrointestinal distress.
What to eat instead: Try pouring lactose-free, oat, almond or rice milk into your cereal or coffee. You can also try dairy-free yogurts and ice creams. Hard cheeses are also a better choice than soft cheeses as they contain less lactose, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
2. Caffeinated Drinks
Not being able to enjoy a cup or two of coffee or tea in the morning is a tough reality for some IBS sufferers, but caffeine is a stomach irritant that can increase diarrhea, according to John Hopkins Medicine. But don't despair, sleepyheads! According to an article published June 2017 in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, caffeine may be tolerated if it's restricted to 400 milligrams.
What to drink instead: If it's still a big no for you, there are many good substitutions. "Herbal teas, things like Teeccino and Dandy Blend tea are also great — they're kind of like coffee but aren't," says Isabel Smith, RD, CDN. "There are mushroom elixirs (like Four Sigmatic), and a good cup of ginger in hot water can also do the trick for energy and soothing."
3. Foods High in Fructose
Being cautious with certain fruits, drinks and processed foods containing high amounts of fructose, a FODMAP compound, can help with IBS symptoms. According to Food Intolerance Diagnostics, it's a good idea to limit the following:
- Dried fruit
Processed foods containing high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar or molasses should also be limited or avoided.
What to eat instead: Reach for cantaloupe, grapes, kiwi, oranges, pineapple, strawberries, eggplant, green beans, bok choy, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, potatoes, spinach and zucchini, which are gentler on the digestive system. Also, you should start becoming a staunch label sleuth with those processed foods!
4. Cruciferous Veggies
Vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli are rich in vitamins and minerals and full of cancer-fighting phytonutrients. But they're also high in fructans and galactooligosaccharides, says gastroenterologist Jacqueline Wolf, MD.
"These are inadequately broken down by digestion and give gas and bloating," Dr. Wolf says.
What to eat instead: If these foods trigger symptoms for you, you can still get your fill with easier-to-digest veggies like eggplant, green beans, bok choy, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, spinach and zucchini. And eat up, because…nutrients!
Beans, chickpeas, lentils and soy beans are protein powerhouses and excellent sources of minerals like iron, magnesium and zinc. But they're all high in fiber and contain oligosaccharides (a FODMAP compound), according to the U.S. Dry Beans Council, which means they may cause some major bloating and gas issues.
What to eat instead: There aren't any real "replacements" for beans, but you can try soaking them in water overnight to tame gas-producing substances, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And keep in mind that you may react differently to different types of legumes, so you may want to test out your reaction before you write them out of your diet completely.
6. Sugar Alcohols (Polyols)
You may be tempted to reach for sugar-free foods if you're watching your weight, but many of these foods contain sugar alcohols (substitutes) like the polyols: sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol and maltitol. These FODMAPs, according to a September 2016 article in the International Journal of Dentistry, may cause gas, bloating and diarrhea, so it's probably best to limit sugarless gum and any other food labeled "sugar-free."
What to eat instead: "Eat food with real sugar in it! I can't say this enough — it makes a huge difference for people, especially with IBS," Smith tells LIVESTRONG.com.
7. Insoluble Fiber
This type of fiber (roughage), promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, as it isn't broken down by the gut, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is good news for most people, but a June 2017 article in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine noted that insoluble fiber may cause diarrhea in IBS sufferers.
Watch out for:
- Whole-wheat flour
- Wheat bran
- Vegetables like cauliflower, green beans and potatoes
What to eat instead: You may want to try some foods containing soluble fiber, which may slow things down a bit. Citrus fruits, carrots and barley are good choices.
Having a glass of wine or a cocktail here and there may be OK for some, but consuming a lot of alcohol (binge drinking) can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Alcohol acts as an irritant and increases digestive juices, slowing down the digestive process, according to an article published in 2017 in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. And findings in a study published in February 2013 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology showed that heavy alcohol intake may exacerbate gastrointestinal symptoms with IBS.
Also, pay attention to what you're ordering, Jenny Champion, RD, CPT, suggests, because it may not be the alcohol that's causing the issue. Barley in beer or the sugary or carbonated drinks mixed with the alcohol may trigger symptoms.
What to drink instead: Wine and martinis mixed with natural ingredients like mint, basil and ginger are safer options, Champion says. And remember to practice moderation.
Gluten is a protein found in many carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta, bagels and some cereals. Because they contain fructans and are high on the FODMAP list, these foods can aggravate your stomach. Granted, you could just have a gluten sensitivity, but you should definitely be checked for Celiac Disease if gluten does do a number on you.
What to eat instead: Unless you have another serious GI issue, such as celiac disease, it's not a good idea to eliminate gluten altogether, according to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, since these foods provide important nutrients. Rather, try avoiding these foods for a couple weeks, then slowly reintroducing them to determine your level of intolerance.
If you do have to avoid gluten, though, there are many gluten-free options available in your grocery store and at most restaurants.
10. Carbonated Drinks
Soda, seltzer and club soda are often big contributors to IBS symptoms, particularly a bloated belly. The fizz can bubble up in your digestive tract, causing belching, bloating and gas, per the American College of Gastroenterology. And you're also hit with a double-whammy since many of these drinks have artificial sweeteners.
What to drink instead: There are plenty of ways to hydrate without the bubbles. Smith suggests tea, fruit-infused water and fresh veggie/fruit juices (that are FODMAP-compliant, of course.). Freezing bits of fruit and herbs or spices in ice cube trays to drop into a tall glass of H2O is another fun idea.
It's hard not to indulge sometimes, but for IBS sufferers, chocolate may be a big no-no. Chocolate contains caffeine — approximately 6 milligrams per ounce in milk chocolate and 23 in dark. But dark may be the safer bet, as it shouldn't contain any lactose. Unfortunately, there can be traces of milk in dark chocolate, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
What to eat instead: Those who can't have any lactose should check the advisory statement on dark chocolate packaging (like "may contain dairy" or "made on equipment shared with milk").
There are dairy-free and vegan chocolate options, but again, check the packaging and labels to make sure they don't contain any triggering ingredients.
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Health Publishing: "What's Causing that Belly Bloat?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Lactose Intolerance: Living With"
- John Hopkins Medicine: "5 Foods to Avoid if You Have IBS"
- World Journal of Gastroenterology: "Diet in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: What to Recommend, Not What to Forbid to Patients!"
- Food Intolerance Diagnostics: "Fructose Content of Food"
- U.S. Dry Beans Council: "Bean Facts"
- International Journal of Dentistry: "Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals"
- Mayo Clinic: "Nutrition and Healthy Eating"
- International Journal of Molecular Medicine: "Dietary Fiber in Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- American Journal of Gastroenterology: "Relationship Between Patterns of Alcohol Consumption and Gastrointestinal Symptoms Among Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: "Should You Avoid Eating Fructans"
- American College of Gastroenterology: "Belching, Bloating, and Flatulence"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Dark Chocolate and Milk Allergies"
- Cleveland Clinic: "What You Should Know About Beans and the (Embarrassing) Gas They Cause"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Try A FODMAPs Diet to Manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fructose Intolerance: Which Foods to Avoid"
- Monash University: "FODMAPs and Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Beyond Celiac: Symptoms of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
- My Food Data: "Milk Chocolate"
- My Food Data: "Dark Chocolate"
- Monash University: "Your Guide to a Happy, Low FODMAP Easter!"