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Though we know frustratingly little about what causes ulcerative colitis, if you’re reading this, you may already know how uncomfortable and painful a UC flare-up can be.
Since there’s currently no cure for UC, avoiding symptoms such as bloody diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, rectal pain, fatigue, fever, and the urgent need to go is a top priority. Diet might be a natural way to keep them at bay.
As far as scientists can tell, ulcerative colitis is the unfortunate result of genetics, environment, and possibly an overactive immune response in the gastrointestinal tract. An imbalance of gut bacteria has been linked to certain types of inflammation.
Those who have UC often find that some foods and drinks trigger their symptoms, while others don’t. It’s a good idea to discuss your triggers with your doctor before starting any sort of diet.
Here are some foods that doctors and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation say are the best to eat when you’re not in a flare-up and want to stay that way.
While a high-fiber diet is recommended for many people and may help prevent Crohn’s disease flare-ups, studies show that it does not have the same effect on UC. High fiber intake increases your bowel movements, which can be a trigger.
You still need to get your carbs for energy, though, so go for oatmeal, which can help prevent flare-ups.
2. Bananas, melons, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, and grapes
These fruits provide vitamins and antioxidants while satisfying your sweet tooth. What’s more, when you digest them, they don’t make you gassy (a UC trigger), unlike fruits with more fructose.
For a little decadence, you might want to try this grain-free blueberry galette.
3. Colorful vegetables
IBD flare-ups can lead to malnutrition, so it’s important to eat nutrient-rich foods when you’re in remission. Eating many different colors will help ensure that you get a variety of vitamins and minerals.
4. Skinless chicken breast
While you’ll want to avoid saturated fat and other suspected UC culprits, lean proteins like this staple are go-tos. Tofu and eggs are other nutritious lean protein options. Need some recipe inspiration? Try a soothing chicken vegetable soup.
Some studies have been inconclusive about the effect of omega-3 supplements on UC, but one in which participants ate salmon found reduced inflammation in people with mild cases of UC.
Aim to eat salmon once or twice per week and, if your budget allows, opt for wild salmon since it’s generally considered a better product than farmed. This recipe is gentle and tasty.
6. Olive oil and olives
The fruits and leaves of olive trees contain substances called biophenols, which are the most abundant source of antioxidants from fruit and vegetables in the human diet.
Some animal studies have shown biophenols to be promising as an anti-inflammatory in the treatment of IBD. This doesn’t necessarily mean the same is true for humans, but olives are delicious and good for your heart.
Curcumin, a substance found in turmeric, is another anti-inflammatory touted for all kinds of ailments. Some small studies have found that it can help induce and maintain remission for those with UC.
You can easily add turmeric to cooked veggies, scrambled eggs, smoothies, teas and much more.
While you may want to avoid the lactose in other dairy products, a 2006 study found that the active culture Lactobacillus GG, found in some yogurts, could help your gut rebalance its microbiome.
This allows good gut bacteria to break down your food without making you gassy. Try making your own yogurt at home!
9. Kimchi and sauerkraut
These are reliable sources of probiotics that help with digestion/nutrient absorption and support a healthy gut. You can easily toss both of these into scrambled eggs or add them to tacos.
10. Prebiotic foods
If you’re nowhere near having a flare-up, you can test the waters with prebiotic foods such as raw Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, dandelion root, and onions.
You can’t easily digest these foods, but they feed the good bacteria in your gut, encouraging that microbiome balance.
Fair warning, though: These foods are not good choices if you’re following a low-FODMAP diet, so be sure to get your doctor’s advice first.
Again, not everyone has the same triggers for their UC, so you may want to keep a food diary to track what yours are.
Here are some that many people agree on:
1. Red meat
Scientists aren’t sure whether the culprit is the fat content or the gases released when bacteria in your gut break down meat, but red meat is a pretty common trigger food for UC.
2. Spicy foods
The capsaicin in hot peppers tends to get things moving faster in your bowels, which can lead to a flare-up.
3. Refined sugars
According to a 2005 study, eating desserts and other foods with a lot of sugar can cause a UC relapse in some people.
4. Soda and coffee
If the sugar in soda doesn’t get you, the carbonation might. As for coffee, you may have noticed that it speeds up your trips to the toilet, which is a trigger for flare-ups.
Since UC can cause dehydration, you’ll feel much better if you drink water anyway.
Some people with UC are lactose intolerant, so milk, cream, ice cream, and some cheeses that contain lactose are harder for their bodies to break down. This leads to gas, cramping, and more UC symptoms.
6. Butter, mayonnaise, and margarine
Saturated fats in condiments like these may kick you right out of remission.
7. Cruciferous veggies
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and other members of the Brassica family of vegetables contain a lot of sulfur, which a UC gut has trouble tolerating. A 2004 study found that decreasing your intake of these foods could make relapse less likely.
8. Sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, and xylitol
These are all sugars that are produced when you eat certain fruits (like apples, pears, and peaches) and vegetables (like cauliflower). They’re also an ingredient in artificial sweeteners and thickeners.
When they reach your colon, they can produce painful gas and lead to inflammation or a flare-up.
The sulfates in beer and wine and the sugar in all liquor can be triggers.
You may already have favorite gut-soothing meals to eat during flare-ups, but you can add to your list with these suggestions from experts at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation:
- White rice
- White bread (sourdough, potato rolls, gluten-free bread)
- Bananas, melons, and cooked fruits
- Chicken or vegetable broth
- Lean proteins like fish, tofu, and chicken breast
- Lactose-free dairy products
- Lactose-free protein shakes
When you have a gastrointestinal issue like UC, you can’t rely on restaurants and takeout counters to have foods that suit your needs. Many restaurants use a lot of butter to make their food taste so good.
That’s why you may want to do more cooking at home — using fresh foods if possible, not prepared stuff packed with preservatives.
Some people with UC find that eating four to six small meals instead of three large ones keeps their guts happier, which means you’ve got more dishes to plan than ever.
Pick up some meal-prep habits if you haven’t yet. Those include planning bigger meals in a slow cooker or making staples like baked chicken, starches, or roasted veggies that you can mix and match for the rest of the week.
While you’re shopping for the week ahead, pick up some of the staples you’ll need during a flare-up, too. That way you can skip going to the store when you’re under the weather.
So much research still needs to be done to find the ideal combination of foods that will keep IBD in remission, but you can work with a gastroenterologist or registered dietitian to find what works for you.
That may require a lot of trial and error, so be patient with yourself.
Some of the diets experts recommend are:
Eliminating wheat, rye, and barley is necessary only if you have a gluten intolerance. This is definitely something to discuss with a medical professional, because going without those foods can be just as big a problem without proper guidance.
Pick up a copy of “The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook” for more information.
This diet was originally designed to treat irritable bowel syndrome, but it has helped many people manage their Crohn’s and UC, too.
To follow it, you’ll need to consult this long list of foods that are either high or low in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). When FODMAPs break down in your intestines, they can cause painful bloating.
Interested in learning more? Shop for Kate Scarlata’s book “The Low-FODMAP Diet Step by Step.”
Mouse studies have shown that dietary salt might be a factor in IBD, so a diet low in sodium could be beneficial for some people.
You don’t want your food to taste like cardboard, though, so we suggest a book like “The Easy Low-Sodium Diet Plan & Cookbook.” Buy it here.
Low-fiber diet/low-residue diet
We’ll get right to the point: High-fiber foods make you poop more, so doctors and researchers recommend cutting back on those during a flare-up.
The “Low Residue Diet Cookbook” can help prevent this notion from becoming an excuse to eat junk food. You can buy it here.
Specific Carbohydrate Diet
This trademarked diet was created to help people manage IBD and other illnesses. It involves restricting certain refined carbs and excluding some vegetables and grains.
For an especially appetizing option, consider adopting a Mediterranean diet, which is low in triggering saturated fats and high in vegetables, lean proteins, and the good fats that may reduce inflammation.
Buy “The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook” to make the transition easier.
If lactose is one of your triggers, it’s time to lay off the milk and ice cream. Alisa Fleming’s “Eat Dairy Free” is a great resource for making this change. Get it here.
When UC flare-ups have robbed you of nutrition, you may be looking to gain it back. Be sure to consult with a doctor or nutritionist to do this safely.
The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center has a helpful guide to eating a high-calorie, high-protein diet.
Everyone’s triggers and safe foods are different, and it may not be immediately obvious what yours are. To figure it out for sure, you can talk to a medical professional first and keep a daily food diary or use an app like the GI Buddy.
If you write down everything you eat (including the sauces and spices, if possible) and when you eat it, you can look back on it when you’re in a flare-up.
Be sure to document your symptoms when they happen as well. Connect the dots and — Eureka! — you’ve found a trigger.