Finding a weight-loss diet with staying power can be daunting for those who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) because unfamiliar foods may cause uncomfortable symptoms. However, many of the best foods for weight loss are also known to alleviate IBS symptoms.
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IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder marked by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits, according to Harvard Health Publishing. People with IBS often experience gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea or some combination of these symptoms. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all treatment option for IBS, symptoms are usually manageable through diet, exercise and stress management — all of which are also key components of weight loss.
Read more: What Is IBS, Exactly?
Lose Weight With Low-FODMAPs
For people with IBS, significant dietary changes should be done with the support and guidance of both a doctor and a nutritionist, says Elena Ferran, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City who specializes in IBS.
"The collaboration between the patient, doctor and nutritionist is very important," she says, "because while you want to achieve the weight loss and avoid increasing the IBS symptoms, you also want to maintain the right caloric and nutrients intake, and it can be very difficult to put all of this together alone."
A diet often recommended for people with IBS is one that reduces or eliminates foods with high "FODMAP" content, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. FODMAP is the acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. In essence, FODMAPs are fermentable carbohydrates that are tough for the small intestine to properly absorb, says Arielle Leben, RD, a registered dietitian at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
Leben explains that foods to avoid on a low-FODMAP diet vary from person to person but often include high-lactose dairy products such as milk, cottage cheese and yogurt, as well as many wheat-based products, such as cereal, bread and crackers. Fruits and vegetables (think leafy greens, honey dew and cantaloupe), on the other hand, are often encouraged on a low-FODMAP diet, as are certain gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat and flax.
These foods — many of which are high in fiber — can make you feel fuller for longer periods, which is a key to effective weight loss, too.
Up Fiber and Fitness for IBS
Adding fiber to your diet generally can be a good way to kick-start your weight-loss journey while simultaneously alleviating your IBS symptoms, but it's important to add the fiber gradually. According to the Cleveland Clinic, drastically increasing your fiber intake all at once may cause gas and abdominal pain in people with IBS.
What may be less obvious is that, in addition to adding fiber, increasing activity can both improve IBS symptoms and, as is well-documented, aid in weight loss if you ultimately burn more calories than you ingest. According to a June 2017 review in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, physical activity can help "enhance intestinal gas clearance."
People with IBS should aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity such as yoga, walking, cycling or swimming, for at least five days a week, the study authors say.
Journal for IBS Relief
With IBS, it can be helpful to get yourself a handy journal in which you can record your reactions to any new foods you try. When Leben works with patients to modify their diets, she says she almost always recommends they keep a detailed diary, not only of what they eat but how much of it they're eating.
"For a lot of patients I work with, it's not so much the food ingredients as the quantities that make a difference," she explains. By keeping a detailed journal, she says, patients can identify the specific quantities of certain foods that trigger their IBS symptoms and make a note to avoid them in the future. Or, vice versa: When they eat something that leaves them feeling OK, they can give those foods the green light for future meals.
Ultimately, documenting how your food makes you feel, along with increased exercise and diet modifications such as low-FODMAPs and higher-fiber foods, can both keep IBS symptoms and the scale in check.
Read more: Your Ultimate Guide to Living Well With IBS
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Integrative Approaches to Reduce IBS Symptoms”
- Elena N. Ferran, MD, gastroenterologist, NYU Langone Health, New York City
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “FODMAP Diet: What You Need to Know”
- Arielle Leben, RD, NYU Langone Health, New York City
- Cleveland Clinic: “The Best and Worst Foods for IBS”
- World Journal of Gastroenterology: “Diet in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: What to Recommend, Not What to Forbid to Patients!”