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If you’re living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you know how quickly a casual Friday hangout can take a nosedive. With symptoms like cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation lurking around every corner, it’s hard to know where (and when) your next flare-up will strike.
And while there’s no shame in making a graceful exit from a party to handle your business when you need to, it’s not exactly ideal.
One of the biggest triggers of an IBS flare-up? Food. While you shouldn’t have to eliminate certain foods from your diet completely (unless you’re allergic or have an intolerance), limiting some of these irritating varieties could help keep your condition under control and get your social calendar back on track.
1. Insoluble fiber
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Insoluble fiber passes right through the body unchanged. It adds “bulk” to our No. 2s and usually helps prevent constipation. So, if you have IBS with constipation, eating foods rich in insoluble fiber may be helpful. However, everyone with IBS is different, so it’s important to know which high fiber foods improve or worsen symptoms.
Soluble fiber, on the other hand, will be your BFF (best fiber friend) — especially if you’re dealing with the C or D (constipation or diarrhea).
Research has shown that soluble fiber improves overall IBS symptoms. Soluble fiber absorbs water and fluids as it passes through the gut, which softens our poos and makes them easier to pass.
Both types of fiber are great for us and are often found together in plant foods to varying degrees. So what is a gassy girl to do? Opt for foods with a higher soluble fiber content.
That’s foods like oatmeal, barley, quinoa, root veggies (think carrots and parsnips), peas, oranges, berries, and melon like honeydew or cantaloupe.
2. Beans and legumes
Thanks to a type of indigestible carbohydrate called oligosaccharides, many beans and legumes, are not well tolerated. When the bacteria in our large intestines starts to break this stuff down, it creates excess gas and bloat, which is super exciting (read: uncomfortable).
The amount of these indigestible carbohydrates varies between bean varieties, so it’s best to stick to a small amount when experimenting with new types.
In general, all canned beans should be rinsed well prior to cooking and dried beans should be soaked for 24 hours to minimize negative effects.
3. Fatty and fried foods
Eating fatty foods such as french fries and fast food may exacerbate IBS. Fat slows digestion, which can lead to uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, nausea, acid reflux, and stomach pain.
Minimize or avoid greasy foods like pizza, french fries, fried chicken, and fatty meats. Instead try foods rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fat (the good kind of fats) like olive oil and olives, avocado, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
Now, caffeine probably does come to mind when we say the word “stimulant.” If you need that morning cortado to get moving (literally and figuratively), you’re not alone.
If you live with IBS, though, caffeine can make things move a little faster than you’re comfortable with.
And it’s not just coffee. We’re talking caffeinated tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate. 😭If diarrhea rules your world, it may be wise to drop the caffeine for a few weeks to see if things turn around.
Usually these can be added back slowly and in moderation, so don’t mourn your daily oat milk latte habit just yet.
5. Carbonated drinks
Fizzy doesn’t work for everyone. The bubbly stuff can increase bloating and may make some people feel like they have pop rocks in their stomachs. If that sounds like you, ditch the soda and seltzer for a few weeks and try replacing them with water: flavored or plain will do.
6. Processed foods
Processed foods are filled with additives and preservatives and are often fried and/or high in fat. All of these can irritate the gut and trigger IBS symptoms. If it comes in a bag or a box (like chips, cookies, and crackers) it’s best to avoid and find some real food alternatives.
7. Sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners
Sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, and xylitol, are found in products like candies, gum, mints, and even mouthwash. These sweeteners are part of a family of carbohydrates called polyols. Since these sweeteners are resistant to digestion, they often lead to bloating and diarrhea for IBS sufferers.
Avoid sugar alcohols and other artificial sweeteners if you can and don’t let the vilification of sugar scare you away. A little natural sweetener is better than the processed stuff any day of the week.
It may take some time for your palette to adjust, but you’ll get there, and you’ll be more appreciative of the naturally sweet stuff when you finally arrive.
Booze is a tough one. It’s a known gut irritant, can affect GI motility, and your gut reaction to it is based heavily on how much and how frequently you imbibe.
Before you start emptying your bar cart, it’s not all bad news and you don’t need to give it up for good. Beer and red wine can be particularly irritating for some people, while vodka, gin, whiskey, and tequila can be easier to tolerate, especially when you get rid of the sugary mixers.
9. Garlic and onions
Both garlic and onions contain fructans, another type of carbohydrate that is not digested well. Like many foods on this list, these two have many proven health benefits, but can also trigger an array of symptoms in people with IBS.
There are some clever swaps you can try, though:
- Reach for a garlic- or onion-infused olive oil the next time you cook for all the flavor and none of the pain.
- Sauté chives in place of onions.
- Add flavor with ginger and fennel — both of which can help your overactive tummy to chill.
The point is, we have options, and there are a ton of herbs and spices out there to play with.
10. Cruciferous vegetables
Is it good to be bad? In this case, not really. Which is a shame because these nutrient powerhouses have been shown to protect us from lots of bad stuff (good), but also have the power to trigger the IBS beast (bad).
Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, arugula, and kale are a few of the culprits here. These veggies contain raffinose, another type of carbohydrate we humans don’t tolerate well.
So, while you may have to forgo the roasted brussels at Christmas this year, you do have plenty of nutrient-rich veggie options to choose from, including spinach, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, beets, and sweet potatoes.
Dairy will trigger IBS symptoms if you’re lactose intolerant, period. Most adults actually are intolerant to some extent, so you’re in good company if you’re wondering why your friend can take down that pint of B&J with minimal discomfort, while you’re running for the bathroom after a half cup.
Yogurt typically does not fall into this category thanks to the natural bacteria (probiotics) it contains, which can actually help ease IBS symptoms instead of triggering them.
Hard cheeses are also less offensive and some are completely free of lactose.
If you think dairy does a number on you, look for naturally lactose-free options including almond, oat, or soy alternatives. Olive oil is a great replacement for butter and can even sub in for baking. We’ll dip our bread in olive oil any day of the week.
Another type of sugar we don’t digest well is fructose, which is a bummer because it’s concentrated in a lot of delicious fruits. Apples, pears, and watermelon are the ones to look out for here, as are dried fruits and fruit juices.
When in doubt, opt for fruits like blueberries, strawberries, honeydew, and cantaloupe, which are usually tolerated.
Those with IBS-related diarrhea often find relief after ridding their diet of gluten. Refresher: gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale that can cause bloating, pain, and diarrhea if you have a true allergy or intolerance.
Additionally, research is beginning to point to other compounds found in wheat and other grains, called fructans, which when broken down by intestinal bacteria produce IBS-like symptoms. Translation: it’s not always the gluten.
If you’re not looking to rid your life of bread, we hear you. Try getting rid of the refined grains first and see if that improves symptoms, opting instead for 100 percent whole grains or wheat-free products like those from Food For Life. The Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted whole grain bread is our personal favorite.
There are plenty of foods you can eat and no food group is off the table. In addition to the substitutions already mentioned, here are a few tips:
- When in doubt, cooked vegetables are better tolerated than raw.
- Same goes for fruits without the skin.
- Protein is a win here. Enjoy lean red meat, skinless poultry, and plenty of fish without worry.
- Nuts and seeds, like pumpkin, sunflower, chia, and flaxseed, are also great options for healthy fats with a protein boost.
- Fiber is still your friend. While you may eliminate the biggest offenders for a while to figure out what’s what, fiber is still important for a healthy gut. Increase fiber intake gradually with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
- Focus first on soluble fiber and foods you tolerate well, and drink plenty of water while you’re at it.
Much of the health community has rallied around the effectiveness of following a low FODMAP diet to help identify foods that trigger GI discomfort. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.
These are short chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in the gut and can cause bloating, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea. Sounds a lot like IBS right?
Bad news first. This “diet” can feel really restrictive when you start it. The good news is that after about 4 weeks of omitting these foods, you can start adding them back one at a time to see how your body reacts.
If you’re curious which foods are high on the FODMAP don’ts list, Kate Scarlata RDN, an IBS and FODMAP expert, has some really great information, and Monash University created an entire app dedicated to this stuff.
If you’re looking to read more, check them out. If you do decide to pursue an elimination diet of any kind, always seek out assistance from a registered dietitian or your doctor first.
Definitely not! With IBS you get very comfortable, very fast, with two things: asking questions and making substitutions. It’s called self-preservation and we’re here for it. A few general tips for getting comfortable at restaurants:
- Know your triggers, and then avoid them.
- Stay away from cream-based soups, sauces, or anything creamy for that matter. No disco fries at the late-night diner.
- Ask for dressings and sauces on the side. The simpler a meal is prepared, the safer you are.
- Choose grilled or roasted over fried as your prep method of choice. It can cut down on fat and that can equal sweet relief for your gut.
- Ask how foods are prepared and, better yet, what they’re prepared with. If it’s not how you’d like it, tell them. Restaurants often look to add flavor to foods in a number of ways. You might not expect it but that “simply grilled” steak or fish filet was also likely “simply tossed” in a bunch of butter. Sneaky!
IBS is no doubt frustrating, uncomfortable and kinda like that non-committal boyfriend you still kick yourself for not dumping sooner. All it takes is some time to get to know yourself and a dash of discipline to get on the track to symptom-free success.
Keep track of what you eat and how you feel afterward. Your body is a great communicator, pay attention to it. Reach out to a registered dietitian or gastroenterologist to help connect the dots and make a plan that makes the most sense for you, then test, test, test.
You got this!