Diverticulitis is debilitating, so it's important that your diet won't make it worse. If you enjoy steak or a cooked breakfast, you'll want to know if there's an issue with red meat and diverticulitis or bacon and diverticulitis, for example. The answer seems to be: "It's complicated."
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Meat and poultry are low-fiber foods that are among the safe ones to eat when you are dealing with a diverticulitis flare-up. However, a high red meat diet might not be good if you don’t already have diverticulitis and don’t want to develop it.
What Is Diverticulitis?
The National Institute of Digestive and Diabetes and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) explains that diverticular disease is an umbrella term for gut symptoms caused by diverticulosis and diverticulitis. Diverticulosis is the general condition, which occurs when small pouches (called diverticula) form and push outward through weak spots in the wall of your colon (bowel).
Diverticulosis is more common with age, and 58 percent of people over the age of 60 have the condition. Diverticulitis refers to the symptoms you get when one, or a few, of the pouches in the wall of your colon become inflamed.
According to the NIDDK, you may have diverticulosis with no symptoms, or it may cause varying degrees of constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. Diverticulitis — which only about 5 percent of people with diverticulosis go on to develop — most often causes severe abdominal pain. Diverticular bleeding can also occur as a symptom of diverticular disease.
Red Meat and Diverticulitis
The Cleveland Clinic says tender cuts of unprocessed meat, poultry and fish are all in fact safe foods during a diverticulitis attack as they are low in fiber, which is what is needed during the acute stage of the illness.
However, having too much red meat may be a risk factor for diverticulitis developing according to a study published in the February 2018 issue of Gut. The authors of this research analyzed health and diet information reported by more than 46,000 initially healthy men (ages 40 to 75) over 26 years.
They found that men who ate the most red meat per week (about 13 servings) were 58 percent more likely to develop diverticulitis during the study period, compared with men who ate the least red meat per week (1.2 servings).
These findings on red meat and diverticulitis don't prove that red meat causes diverticulitis, but they do suggest that taking a cautious approach and swapping some red meat for other proteins could be a good idea. For example, the risk for developing diverticulitis was one-fifth lower when people in the study substituted poultry or fish for a serving of unprocessed red meat each day.
Bacon and Diverticulitis
Bacon gets a bad rap diet-wise as it's a food linked to cancer, as well as being high in saturated fat and sodium: According to the USDA, three slices (34.5 grams) of pan-fried pork bacon rashers contain 4.1 grams of saturated fat and 582 milligrams of sodium along with 161 calories.
But when it comes to bacon and diverticulitis, there's no clear link. In fact, in the 2018 Gut study, it was unprocessed red meat that seemed to have the strongest link with the condition.
However the lack of any clear association between bacon and diverticulitis isn't a reason to think processed meats are off the hook. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommends that people consume little, if any, processed meat, including bacon, as no level is safe and the link with colorectal cancer is clear-cut.
With fresh red meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal), there are some health benefits and the WCRF's recommendations for cancer prevention are less stringent: They recommend that people consume no more than about three portions per week (about 350 to 500 grams or 12 to 18 ounces cooked weight in total).
Read more: Causes of Abdominal Pain and Fatigue
Acute Diverticulitis Diet
Your doctor may recommend a short period of basically just fluids during an acute bout of diverticulitis. The Mayo Clinic diverticulitis diet is one such diet — it recommends a clear liquid diet of broth, pulp-free fruit juices, ice pops, gelatin, water and tea and coffee (without milk) for a few days, until you start feeling better.
Read more: Liquid Diet for Diverticulitis
The second phase of the Mayo Clinic diverticulitis diet recommends the consumption of only low-fiber foods. Diverticulitis diet recipes that fit the bill may feature meat, poultry and fish along with white bread, rice and pasta, cooked skin and seed-free fruits and vegetables, milk, yogurt and cheese.
The Mayo Clinic diverticulitis diet is a temporary measure to give your digestive system a chance to rest. It's recommended you keep on with it until any bleeding or diarrhea has subsided, but you should take a health professional's advice before proceeding with the diet. The Mayo Clinic says you may also need to be prescribed antibiotics.
Preventive Diet for Diverticular Disease
Although a lower fiber diet has its place in treating acute diverticulitis flare-ups, the NIDDK recommends that, conversely, for people who already have diverticulosis and want to try to prevent diverticulitis developing, a high fiber diet could potentially help.
Increasing the fiber in your diet should only be done when you aren't experiencing acute symptoms and following discussions with your doctor, as the benefits aren't clear cut in all cases. Also, how much and how quickly you increase fiber in your diet may need to be monitored by a health professional to reduce your chances of having stomach gas and pain.
Meat is fiber-free, which is one reason you should not have a diet that is too meat-heavy, allowing space on your plate for higher fiber plant protein sources.
The Mayo Clinic says the way that high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and soya help is by softening waste, helping it pass more quickly through your colon. This reduces pressure within your digestive tract, which may help reduce the risk of diverticula forming and becoming inflamed.
The Mayo Clinic adds that in the past, people with small pouches present in the lining of the colon were told to avoid nuts, seeds and popcorn, as it was thought that these foods could lodge in the pouches, causing irritation and inflammation.
However, the latest research suggests there is no evidence that these healthy foods cause diverticulitis, and they can, and should, be consumed day-to-day by people with diverticular disease.
Another option worth exploring if you have diverticulitis is the Monash University FODMAPs diet, which eliminates troublesome fermentable carbohydrates known as FODMAPs, which are poorly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract.
FODMAPs are known to cause problems for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but a November 2016 report in the World Journal of Gastrointestinal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics theorizes that the FODMAPs diet may not just help people with IBS but might help diverticulitis too. Meat, chicken and poultry are all safe on a FODMAP diet, but professional advice from a FODMAPs-trained dietitian is advisable before embarking on the diet.
Is This an Emergency?
- NIDDK: “Diverticular Disease”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Gastrointestinal Soft Diet Overview”
- Gut: “Meat Intake and Risk of Diverticulitis Among Men”
- USDA: “Pork, Cured, Bacon, Pre-Sliced, Cooked, Pan-Fried”
- WCRF: “Limit Red and Processed Meat”
- Mayo Clinic: “Diverticulitis Diet”
- Mayo Clinic: “Are There Trigger Foods I Should Avoid to Prevent Diverticulitis Attacks”
- Monash University: “Low FODMAP Diet App”
- World Journal of Gastrointestinal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics: "Logical Hypothesis: Low FODMAP Diet to Prevent Diverticulitis"