Can Popcorn, That Healthy Snack, Cause Digestive Distress?

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Popcorn may cause stomach issues, especially if you have a corn allergy.
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Historically, the common belief among people diagnosed with digestive disorders such as diverticular disease or irritable bowel syndrome was to avoid eating popcorn. But should this virtually fat-free and high-fiber snack be completely eliminated from your diet?

Diverticular Disease and the Popcorn Debate

When small pockets, called diverticula, are formed in weak spots in the wall of the colon, this condition is known as diverticulosis, says Mayo Clinic. These sacs are found in the lower part of the colon. When the sacs become inflamed and infected, it's called diverticulitis. Lower abdominal pain, along with fever and bowel movement changes, are symptoms of a diverticulitis flare-up.

Can popcorn be a cause of this? At one point, it was believed that parts of the popcorn kernel triggered diverticulitis by lodging into the diverticula, resulting in inflammation and possible infection. But Kelly Krikhely, RD, a registered dietitian at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says there's no evidence to support this theory. In fact, a February 2017 study published in Nutrients reported that a high-fiber diet may help symptomatic uncomplicated diverticular disease (SUDD) by reducing its symptoms.

Three cups of air-popped popcorn packs 3.6 grams of fiber, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides nutritional data on thousands of food items.

When diverticulitis is mild, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and a low-fiber diet, Mayo Clinic notes.

"When people have diverticulitis — when there's inflammation present — people need to follow a low-fiber diet," Krikhely says. "And because of that fact, they need to avoid any raw vegetables, nuts and seeds and whole grains. Popcorn falls into the category of a high-fiber food and needs to be avoided during that time period."

She recommends eating low-fiber foods whenever there's active inflammation and symptoms like diarrhea. Focus on eating white grains like white rice, white bread, pasta, mashed potatoes (without the skin); soft proteins like chicken, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt and tofu; and fruits such as banana, honeydew and cantaloupe as well as canned fruit or cooked fruit.

Read more: Meals to Eat With Diverticulitis

The Case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation classifies irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as a functional gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms, including abdominal pain, that can range from mild to disabling. Symptoms typically happen after eating large meals or during periods of stress, and are relieved for a short period after a bowel movement. Unlike diverticulitis, it does not cause inflammation.

Krikhely notes there are certain people with IBS who might have an intolerance to popcorn, "but you would need to identify the intolerance in the specific person," she says. "In certain cases of IBS, popcorn isn't necessarily restricted."

The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFGD) says people with IBS who experience constipation are more likely to benefit from adding fiber to their diet. Foods that are high in soluble fiber, such as certain veggies, fruits and oats, are less likely to cause pain and bloating versus insoluble fiber sources, like root vegetables, seeds, legumes, wheat bran (and, yes, popcorn). However, IFGD points out that some people have the opposite reaction, so it may require some experimentation to see what works.

What About Corn Allergies?

If your immune system is sensitive and has an unpleasant gut reaction every time you eat corn, you might be allergic to corn protein found in certain foods or to the corn pollen itself, says the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). Symptoms of a corn allergy may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Hives
  • Weak pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Swelling of the tongue and lips
  • Repetitive cough

The ACAAI recommends avoiding any foods that contain corn, and should you have any serious allergic reaction, use an epinephrine pen to counteract it immediately. To help manage the allergy, a registered dietitian can help develop a food plan specific to your needs.

Read more: Is Stomach Pain Related to Corn?

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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