If you have diarrhea, changing your diet may help improve your symptoms. Traditional advice is to consume bland, soft foods to manage brief episodes of diarrhea, although getting enough fluids and resuming a normal diet are most consistent with evidence-based guidelines. For diarrhea related to medications, infections or medical conditions, treating the underlying cause is the most effective way to stop this symptom.
BRAT Diet: Grains
Health professionals have historically recommended the BRAT diet, a short-term food plan consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast, for the management of diarrhea. Although no clinical trials have put this diet to the test, there may be some reasons these foods help. For starters, rice is believed to have antisecretory benefits which reduce stool volume. Also, rice and toast, if white or low fiber, are less likely to aggravate diarrhea compared to their whole grain counterparts -- since certain high fiber foods speed the transit of stool through the gastrointestinal tract. In addition, bland and soft foods such as rice and toast may be easier to tolerate if stomach upset is also present.
BRAT Diet: Fruit
The BRAT diet also recommends bananas, an easy-to-tolerate fruit which is a source of amylase-resistant starch. This poorly digested carbohydrate gets fermented by gut bacteria, producing compounds that improve intestinal health and enhance the gut absorption of fluids and electrolytes -- which may help counter diarrhea. One study of infants with diarrhea demonstrated decreased stool volume and shorter duration of loose, water stools after cooked green bananas were added to a rice diet. The BRAT diet also includes applesauce, a source of pectin, a soluble fiber which may improve diarrhea symptoms by thickening intestinal contents.
Beyond the BRAT Diet
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, dietary management of diarrhea is centered on increasing fluid intake and resuming age-appropriate solid foods as soon as possible. In other words, you don't have to adhere strictly to the BRAT diet, but can resume eating your usual diet -- unless certain foods appear to aggravate your symptoms. While dietary changes may not stop diarrhea, increasing fluids and eating well are essential in order to prevent dehydration and reduce the risk of poor nutrition. Restrictive or liquid-only diets are discouraged in diarrhea management and do not help in most cases.
Diarrhea usually resolves in 1 to 2 days, and complications can be avoided by getting adequate fluids and continuing to eat -- even if the foods are soft and bland at first. While you are suffering from diarrhea, try to also limit foods that increase stool volume or cause frequent bowel movements -- such as high fiber cereals, alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, full-strength fruit juices or foods sweetened with sugar alcohols, such as no-sugar-added ice cream.
If you have diarrhea that is not resolving after 1 to 2 days, or if you are dehydrated and not able to drink enough liquids, see a doctor right away. Infants and young children are at high risk of dehydration when diarrhea is present, so contact a pediatrician if this symptom doesn't resolve within 1 day, or sooner if fluid intake is poor, urination is decreased, or if you need guidance on managing this symptom in your child.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Gastroenterology: A Rice Based Diet with Green Banana or Pectin Reduced Diarrhoea in Infants Better Than a Rice Alone Diet
- Practical Gastroenterology: The BRAT Diet for Acute Diarrhea in Children: Should It Be Used?
- Merck Manual: Diarrhea
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Diarrhea
- American Family Physician: Acute Diarrhea in Adults