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 entire food groups from your diet (unless you have an allergy or intolerance), limiting some of these irritating types of food could help you manage your condition and get your social calendar back on track.
Start by taking stock of your diet and cutting back on these potential IBS food triggers.
1. Insoluble fiber
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Insoluble fiber passes right through your body unchanged. It adds bulk to your stool and usually helps prevent constipation. So, if you have IBS with constipation, eating foods rich in insoluble fiber may be helpful. But IBS is different for everyone, so it’s important to know which high fiber foods improve or worsen your 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 your gut. This softens your poos and makes them easier to pass.
Both types of fiber are great for you, and they’re often found together in plant foods to varying degrees. So what’s a gassy human to do? Opt for foods with a higher soluble fiber content.
That means foods like oatmeal, barley, quinoa, root veggies (think carrots and parsnips), peas, oranges, berries, and melon such as honeydew or cantaloupe.
2. Beans and legumes
Thanks to a type of indigestible carbohydrate called oligosaccharides, many beans and legumes may be tough for your digestive system to tolerate. When the bacteria in your large intestines start to break this stuff down, it creates excess gas and bloating, which can get super uncomfortable.
Each bean variety contains a different amount of these indigestible carbohydrates, so it’s best to stick to small portions when experimenting with new types.
Pro tip: 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 make IBS symptoms worse. Fat slows digestion, and that 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 fats (the good kinds of fat), such as olive oil, olives, avocado, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
Caffeine probably comes to mind when we say the word “stimulant.” If you need that morning cortado to get moving (literally and figuratively), you’re not alone.
But if you live with IBS, caffeine may 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 too. 😭 If diarrhea rules your world, it may be wise to drop the caffeine for a few weeks to see whether things turn around.
Usually, you can add these items back to your diet slowly and in moderation — so don’t mourn your daily oat milk latte habit just yet.
5. Carbonated drinks
Fizz 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. Ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods are filled with additives and preservatives and are often fried and/or high in fat. These foods can irritate your 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 less processed alternatives.
7. Sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners
Sugar alcohols — such as sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, and xylitol — are found in products such as candies, gum, mints, and even mouthwash. These sweeteners are part of a family of carbohydrates called polyols. Since they’re resistant to digestion, they often cause bloating and diarrhea in people with IBS.
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 kind any day of the week.
It may take some time for your palate to adjust, but you’ll get there, and you’ll be more appreciative of the naturally sweet stuff when you finally arrive.
When you need to sweeten things up, opt for erythritol instead. It typically doesn’t produce the same digestive side effects as most other sugar alcohols because it doesn’t reach your large intestine in significant amounts.
Instead, most of it gets absorbed by your small intestine and then spread throughout your body before being excreted in urine. This means it’s usually safe (in small amounts) for people who have IBS.
Booze is a tough one. It’s a known gut irritant and can affect gastrointestinal motility. And your gut’s reaction to it depends heavily on how much and how often you imbibe.
Before you empty your bar cart, try swapping sugary options like rum, cider, and sweet wine for spirits like vodka, gin, and whiskey, which are easier to tolerate (especially when you get rid of the sugary mixers). And, as always, drink in moderation and listen to your body. If a particular drink makes your symptoms worse, it’s best to skip it.
9. Garlic and onions
Both garlic and onions contain fructans, another type of carbohydrate that is not digested well. Like many other foods on this list, these two have proven health benefits, but they 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.
- Saute chives in place of onions.
- Add flavor with ginger and fennel — both of which can help your overactive tummy chill.
The point is that you 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 they 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 that we humans don’t tolerate well.
So, while you may have to forgo the roasted brussels sprouts at Christmas this year, you 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 are actually intolerant to some extent, so you’re in good company if you’re wondering why your friend can take down that pint of ice cream with minimal discomfort while you’re running for the bathroom after eating half a 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 than some other dairy products, and some are completely free of lactose.
If you think dairy does a number on you, look for naturally lactose-free options such as 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 most people don’t digest well is fructose — and that’s 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 well as dried fruits and fruit juices.
When in doubt, opt for fruits like blueberries, strawberries, honeydew, and cantaloupe, which are usually easier to tolerate.
People who experience 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, called fructans, which are found in wheat and other grains and can produce IBS-like symptoms when broken down by intestinal bacteria. 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 whether that improves your symptoms. Instead, opt for 100% whole grains or wheat-free products like those from Little Northern Bakehouse.
Generally speaking, no food group is completely off the table. There are plenty of “safe” foods you can eat in each category. 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. You can enjoy lean red meat, skinless poultry, and plenty of fish without worry.
- Nuts and seeds — such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, 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 your 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.
What the fudge is a FODMAP?
A low FODMAP diet can help identify foods that trigger digestive discomfort. “FODMAP” stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.” These are short-chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in your gut and can cause bloating, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea.
If you’re thinking about trying a low FODMAP eating plan, consider working with a dietitian. This “diet” can be really restrictive at first, and then you need to know exactly how and when to add foods back in to see how your body reacts.
Definitely not! When you have IBS, you get very comfortable, very quickly, with two things: asking questions and making substitutions. It’s called self-preservation, and we’re here for it. Try these tips when eating at restaurants with IBS:
- Learn your triggers, and then take steps to avoid them.
- Stay away from cream-based soups and sauces — or anything creamy, for that matter. That means no disco fries at the late night diner.
- Ask for dressings and sauces on the side. The simpler a meal is, 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 can be frustrating and uncomfortable, but taking some time to get to know yourself and making careful food choices can help you get on track to fewer symptoms.
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 you connect the dots and make a plan that makes the most sense for you. And then test, test, test.
You got this!