There’s a not-so-new term making waves in the nutrition world. Pronounced exactly as it reads, ‘FODMAP’ refers to different types of carbohydrates that cause gastrointestinal distress in some people. If it sounds like another diet craze, it’s not—the low-FODMAP diet has been shown to ease the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you're considering going low-FODMAP, here’s what you should know before you go all-in.
Coined by researchers at Monash University in Australia, 'FODMAP' is an acronym for:
Fermentable: gut bacteria break down undigested carbs to produce gas
Oligosaccharides: a type of carbohydrate found in wheat, rye, onions, legumes and pulses
Disaccharides: lactose, found in dairy
Monosaccharides: fructose, found in honey, apples, and high-fructose corn syrup
Polyols: sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol
“These short-chain carbohydrates are difficult for many people to absorb and digest,” says Harvard-trained gastroenterologist Sarina Pasricha, M.D., MSCR. She adds that these undigested foods can lead to increased fermentation, which can cause abdominal bloating and discomfort. Specifically, FODMAP-rich foods are problematic for the following populations:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Sufferers
According to E.A. Stewart, MBA, RDN, the low-FODMAP diet was originally developed by researchers to help reduce symptoms of IBS, which affects around 15 percent of the world's population. Typically, these symptoms include a combination of abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Scientists have studied how reducing FODMAPs in the diet may diminish fermentation and gas production. “Studies have shown that patients with IBS who follow a restricted FODMAP diet have significant improvement in abdominal pain, flatulence, and bloating,” Pasricha adds.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Sufferers
IBD refers to two specific gastrointestinal conditions—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, and they have similar symptoms to IBS—diarrhea, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue. “Many individuals with IBD are prone to IBS symptoms as well, and the low-FODMAP diet has been shown to help manage symptoms in these individuals,” says Kate Scarlata, RDN, LDN, author of The Low-FODMAP Diet Step by Step.
However, one review mentions that malnutrition is common in IBD patients—so the restrictive nature of the low-FODMAP diet may put these people at further nutritional risk. As a result, while the low‐FODMAP diet may be a useful tool for IBS-like symptoms, it requires careful supervision.
According to Scarlata, many runners have a tendency to fuel up with FODMAP-rich foods, like wheat, bananas, apples, yogurt, honey, and sports products. “Interestingly, a large number of endurance athletes are prone to GI distress, and their FODMAP intake may be higher than the average person's,” Scarlata says.
A study of more than 900 athletes found that 55 percent actually omit at least one high-FODMAP food, and 83 percent see digestive improvements from that elimination. Scarlata suggests low-FODMAP foods, such as rice, oranges, blueberries, and lactose-free yogurt for those athletes who regularly suffer from stomach troubles.
Unfortunately, there's no FODMAP listing on most nutrition labels. But there are a few online tools available, like Scarlata’s FODMAP diet checklist and FODMAP Registered Dietitian Registry, which can help determine which foods are FODMAP-friendly. For meal inspo, Scarlata also has some low-FODMAP recipes and meal plans. And if you're looking for quick, on-the-go support, there's an app for that—Monash University has a low-FODMAP diet app.
If you're interested in more convenient options, several companies have started to create products that fit into a low-FODMAP lifestyle. Here are some of our favorites:
“FODY foods offers delicious snacks, like bars, trail mix packs, and chips,” Scarlata says. She also recommends the onion and garlic-free salsa, ketchup, and chicken broth.
Green Valley Organics
This lactose-free yogurt and kefir are perfect for those who love dairy—but dairy doesn't love them back. Plus, it's certified low-FODMAP.
Rachel Pauls Food
Advertised as “low-FODMAP food," this brand offers great snacking options, like gluten-free, low-FODMAP bars and jerky.
Casa de Sante
These gut-friendly products for IBS include a wide range of low-FODMAP spice blends, granola, and more.
If you think you might want to go low, consider working with a dietitian. According to Pasricha, eliminating FODMAPs can be a challenge since it entails a pretty restrictive diet. Plus, if you do it right, it's an intense process.
“Trying a low-FODMAP style of eating is a three-phase approach," adds Scarlata, "including the elimination of high-FODMAP foods for two to six weeks, systematic re-introduction of FODMAPs to learn about trigger symptoms, and, lastly, the personalization phase."
In other words, a low-FODMAP diet isn't something you can easily try at home. Schedule a consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian to get more information and do appropriate testing to see if and how the FODMAP diet would work for you. (As always, it's important to have guidance and supervision when following new diets to treat medical ailments.)