Spinach and Diarrhea

The leafy vegetable regularly tops the charts of most healthy eating plans out there, so what are you supposed to do if, when you eat spinach, diarrhea follows? You may be able to troubleshoot what's going on and correct it with a few minor changes, especially if the diarrhea is an isolated event.

Spinach can cause diarrhea for some people. (Image: Arx0nt/iStock/GettyImages)

However, if you discover that you have a spinach allergy or food intolerance, you'll likely have to ditch the vegetable, at least temporarily. The good news is that, if spinach and diarrhea go hand in hand all the time, there are plenty of other green vegetables you can eat to meet your nutrition needs.

Spinach and Food Poisoning

When you hear the term "food poisoning" your mind might immediately jump right to raw eggs, but according to a March 2013 report in Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's peer-reviewed journal, most cases of foodborne illness (or approximately 22 percent) are connected to leafy vegetables. Although norovirus is commonly associated with produce, E. coli is most often connected to spinach.

In addition to having diarrhea for up to three days following consumption of contaminated spinach, suffering a bout of food poisoning that's caused by E. coli bacteria can involve abdominal cramps or pain, fatigue, weakness, nausea and vomiting that usually clears up within a week.

Food poisoning is extremely unpleasant, and although you may not be able to avoid it completely, you can reduce your risk of getting it from spinach by cooking it before you eat it. If you prefer to eat spinach raw, keep it stored in the refrigerator away from raw meat, and always thoroughly wash the leaves before eating.

Too Much Fiber

Fiber is good for you, but too much of a good thing is not always so good. Spinach is high in fiber, especially a specific type called insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to your stool and prompts food to pass through your digestive system more quickly.

Although this is generally a good thing, having too much insoluble fiber (or more than 70 grams per day) or being used to a low-fiber diet and increasing your intake too quickly can make food pass through too fast. If this happens, you may get diarrhea, along with other uncomfortable symptoms, like bloating, gas, abdominal cramps and reduced appetite.

It can also result in unwanted weight loss. In other words, if you're eating too much spinach, side effects are more likely, since your body is probably not used to all of that extra fiber yet.

That doesn't mean that you have to stop eating spinach completely though; you may just need to scale back a little bit to give the good bacteria in your stomach and small intestines time to catch up to the increased intake.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that, in addition to gradually increasing your fiber intake, it's also important to drink at least 64 ounces of water each day to prevent constipation and other uncomfortable symptoms.

Spinach Allergy or Intolerance?

Food allergies can appear at any age, so if you're suddenly having diarrhea after eating spinach, especially if it comes on in just minutes or within two hours after eating, it's possible that you have a spinach allergy, even if you didn't have one before. In addition to diarrhea, mild food allergies can also cause:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hives
  • Sneezing
  • Dry cough
  • Abnormal taste in the mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Itchiness in the mouth

Even small amounts of the allergen can cause symptoms if you're allergic. If you have a spinach intolerance, which affects the digestive system, but not the immune system, you may be able to eat a little bit of spinach without having diarrhea, but larger amounts can cause stomach upset and other symptoms.

If you suspect that you have a spinach allergy or intolerance, see your doctor, who will be able to confirm or rule out the diagnosis with a blood test.

Tips for Reducing Diarrhea

Of course, if you have a spinach allergy or intolerance, you'll either have to eliminate the vegetable from your diet or try things to reduce the chances that eating the leafy green will result in diarrhea. If you're not used to eating fiber, or spinach is new to you, scale back a bit. Introduce the green vegetable into your diet a little at a time, instead of trying to get in as much as you can, as quickly as you can.

In addition to slowly increasing your intake, you can also reduce your risk of experiencing diarrhea after eating spinach by cooking it first, instead of eating it raw. Cooking softens the vegetable and starts to break down the fiber before it reaches your intestines, making it easier for you to digest.

As an added bonus, cooking also makes some of the nutrients, like vitamin A, calcium and iron, more bioavailable. In other words, cooking makes it easier to absorb some of the nutrients, too.

Suitable Spinach Replacements

If you've ruled out all the possibilities and tried all the tips and tricks and still have diarrhea after eating spinach, you'll simply have to stop eating it. There are plenty of other green leafy vegetables that offer health benefits similar to those of spinach.

Experiment with them, see which you can tolerate and include as many of them as you can in your diet so you're not eating too much of a particular vegetable all the time.

Try not to cut out green leafy vegetables completely, since they're all rich in vitamin C, folate, fiber, vitamin K, magnesium, potassium and antioxidants. Examples of other healthy green leafy vegetables include:

  • Swiss chard
  • Arugula
  • Dandelion greens
  • Beet greens
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Broccoli
  • Romaine lettuce

You can eat these vegetables raw or cooked, but as with spinach, cooking them makes them easier to digest. Start by lightly steaming or sautéing them and then slowly ease your way into eating them raw, if that's what you prefer.

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