I was browsing some posts on Reddit today in the IBS subreddit /r/ibs, and was not too pleased with what I saw. Many newcomers would say that they thought they had IBS, and then ask what should they do to help the symptoms. The most common response? Take such and such a drug. No! Don't turn to medicine first!
Although I'm still working on healing my IBS-D, I know that digestive problems don't just appear out of thin air; there is a cause. That cause could be your diet, or perhaps you have a bacterial overgrowth in your small intestine. Maybe you were on antibiotics that killed the healthy bacteria in your gut, or you could have a gluten sensitivity. Whatever the reason, taking a pill will not stop the source of the IBS. You must be your own advocate and you need to find out what the root problem is.
You may see some doctors along the way, and they could be helpful or not. So know that ultimately it's up to you to research and experiment to identify the cause of your IBS, and then make appropriate diet/lifestyle changes to become healthy again. Diet is usually to blame, especially in the USA where the terrible highly-processed Western diet still thrives. Diet is only a part of the picture though, as IBS takes into account your whole self - but in this post I'll focus on food.
So what foods are common triggers of IBS? And what should you eat to make your gut healthy?
What to eat when you have IBSEveryone has unique triggers, but below is a list of some foods that are commonly hard to digest, as well as foods that usually aid digestion.
Common IBS TriggersI'll start with some problematic foods that you should really avoid.
- Dairy (milk, cheese, ice cream, butter)
- Insoluble fiber
- Raw vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fried foods
- Fatty meats
- Processed foods (ingredient lists longer than 5 items)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners (fructose, sorbitol, malitol, mannitol)
Foods to help IBS-DThese foods are easier to digest, and can help to calm things down in your digestive tract.
- Decaffeinated tea (peppermint, especially)
- Soluble fiber
- White rice
- Mashed potatoes (no butter/milk!)
- Applesauce (organic, without additives)
- Steamed chicken
How to eat when you have IBSAvoiding common trigger foods is one of the first changes to make, but how you eat can also make a difference when you have IBS. Here are two simple tips:
Eat slowlyTake your time and eat slowly. Chew more than you regularly do, and pay attention while you eat (Hint: Put down the phone and turn off the TV!). You could even count chews per swallow to stay focused on eating.
Eat many smaller mealsRather than two main, larger meals each day, try to eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day. This one really helps me out, so I make sure to have plenty of snacks on hand when I'm away from home. It's usually bad news when I eat on an empty stomach, so I don't let myself get to that point.
Find your food triggersThe two food lists above are common food triggers for people with IBS, but you probably have your own set of special sensitivities. Here are two ways to help figure out what your food triggers are.
Elimination DietStart an elimination diet, of which you can find many samples online. You begin by eliminating all foods that could be wreaking havoc on your digestive system. Stricter elimination diets have you eating only the same few "safe" foods every day at the start. Then, you slowly reintroduce foods into your diet, one at a time every 2-3 days, watching for any reactions. This helps to isolate and pinpoint exactly which foods are causing you problems so you know what to avoid. Here are some elimination diets for IBS, found online:
- 12 Week Elimination Diet for IBS
- Elimination Diet for IBS and Other Food Sensitivities
- Extreme Elimination Diet (for IBS-D)
- Elimination Diet (PDF)
Food journalWhile on an elimination diet, or before you commit to starting one, it could be beneficial to keep a food diary. Write down what you eat every day, right when you're eating it, and also keep track of how you feel afterwards and your bowel movements.
Since it's only helpful if you remember to write down the food you're consuming in the moment (memory often fails us), you could also try a photo food journal. If you use a smartphone, simply snap a photo of everything you eat for a few days.
Be your own advocateIBS is a frustrating digestive disorder. I've been suffering for over seven years! Since everyone's bodies and digestive systems are different, you must look out for yourself and put in the time and energy to investigate what causes your IBS to flare up.
I decided to take control of my health at the start of 2014, and while my IBS is still problematic for me (and I have many more changes to make and research to do), the more I read, learn, share, and experiment, the more determined I am to heal myself. I want to be healthy! Eating right for IBS is the first step towards eliminating IBS struggles.
What are your IBS trigger foods? How did you find out?