If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may have trouble finding foods that won't cause stomach pain. Can something as simple as a protein shake be on your safe-foods list? That depends on you.
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"There's no easy answer," says Marta Ferraz Valles, RD, LD, a dietitian with the Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "IBS is not a disease but a combination of symptoms with multiple possible causes that everyone experiences differently. Some people may be able to tolerate protein shakes, and some may not."
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Up to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. contend with IBS, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Though symptoms flare and can change over time, the most common symptoms of IBS include diarrhea, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain and cramping, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.
Treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms but generally focuses on reducing stress, eating healthy and possibly taking medications, the foundation says.
No one diet works for everyone with IBS, according to the foundation. To determine you're your food triggers are, it helps to keep a journal, says Ferraz Valles. Many people find that eating smaller meals puts less pressure on their gastrointestinal tract. Some foods that commonly cause abdominal trouble in people with IBS include nuts, insoluble high-fiber foods such as cereal beverages and food containing caffeine, such as coffee, sodas and chocolate.
What About Protein Shakes?
Some people with IBS turn to protein shakes to meet their daily nutritional needs. If you want to go this route, be sure to determine what's in your protein shake. To be safe, always read labels on commercial products, so you know what's in a food or drink, and what's not.
You may find that symptoms worsen when you eat or drink dairy, according to Michigan Medicine, and many commercial protein shakes are made with a milk base. "Dairy-free may be better, or not," Ferraz Valles says.
If you're sensitive to dairy, you want to avoid shakes that list "whey protein" as an ingredient. It's one of the primary proteins in dairy foods, according to the Mayo Clinic.
As a substitute, protein shakes made from soy, hemp or brown rice can be dairy-free, but there's a trade-off. "Sometimes plant-based shakes can have less protein content than those made with milk proteins," Ferraz Valles says.
Some people with IBS are lactose intolerant as well, meaning they can't digest lactose, the sugar in milk, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Symptoms of lactose intolerance are similar to IBS — gas, bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping. Indeed, some people who are lactose intolerant may have been mistakenly told they have IBS, Ferraz Valles says. But, if you have IBS and are lactose intolerant, you definitely want to avoid protein shakes with any milk by-products.
However, though yogurt is a dairy food, you may be able to make your protein shake with it even if you're lactose intolerant and not experience any discomfort, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Yogurt is tolerated by many people because it breaks down the bacteria in your gut that causes gas.
Other ingredients to avoid when choosing premade protein shakes are artificial sweeteners, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol and xylitol have been shown to cause diarrhea, especially in some people with IBS, adds Johns Hopkins.
Make Your Own
If you want to be safe, Kelly Krikhely, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition coordinator for Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, recommends making your own shakes rather than buying commercial ones. You can better control the ingredients when you blend them up yourself at home, she says.
But, if you still want to opt for commercially produced shakes out of convenience, work with a registered dietitian to identify brands that won't aggravate your digestive tract.
Read more: Negative Effects of Protein Shakes
- Marta Ferraz Valles, RDN, Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease, Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore
- Kelly Krikhely, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition coordinator, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Irritable bowel syndrome”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "5 Foods to Avoid With IBS"
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “About IBS”
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: "IBS Treatment Options"
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: "IBS Diet What to Do and What to Avoid"
- Michigan Medicine: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Controlling Symptoms with Diet”
- Mayo Clinic: “Whey Protein”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Controlling Your Symptoms”
- Cleveland Clinic: “7 Tips for Choosing the Best Protein Powder”