People sometimes use the BRAT diet to treat diarrhea, stomach flu, and other types of stomach illness. However, this diet carries several risks, including nutrient and calorie deficiencies. As a result, many health organizations no longer recommend it as a treatment option for diarrhea or other stomach problems.
The foods in the BRAT diet are low in protein, fat, and fiber, which makes them easy to digest for most people.
In this article, we look at the benefits and risks of the BRAT diet. We also discuss less risky ways to treat diarrhea.
The term "BRAT" is an acronym for the foods in the diet, which are:
The theory behind the BRAT diet is that by consuming only bland, easy-to-digest foods, people can reduce the symptoms of a stomach illness. These symptoms typically include nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Proponents also believe that these foods promote a quick recovery from a stomach illness.
However, doctors no longer recommend this diet because its nutritional profile is limited, and it may not support rapid or full recovery.
Some people believe that following the BRAT diet can provide several benefits for those with an upset stomach and diarrhea. The apparent benefits include:
- Firmer stools. The foods in the diet are starchy and low in fiber, which may cause loose and runny stools to bind more easily.
- Gentle on the stomach. The foods are low in fat and protein, meaning that they are unlikely to irritate the stomach and put stress on the digestive system.
- Reduced nausea. Due to their bland flavor and lack of strong smells, BRAT foods do not tend to cause nausea or vomiting.
However, these foods do not have varied enough nutrients to warrant the long-term use of this diet.
Although people have been recommending the BRAT diet for decades, no recent clinical trials have looked at whether the BRAT diet is effective as a treatment for diarrhea or gastrointestinal illness.
Although the diet may relieve symptoms in some people, doctors do not recommend that they follow this diet. Other, more nutritionally balanced eating plans may improve recovery and reduce symptoms further.
However, some researchers have investigated the potential roles of bananas and rice in treating diarrhea.
Bananas contain pectin, a starch that is beneficial for the digestive tract. One systematic review from 2019 detailed several studies that found that green banana pulp may reduce both diarrhea and constipation in children.
A 2016 study showed that rice in the form of a soup could effectively treat diarrhea in children who consumed it alongside a prescribed oral rehydration solution.
However, the possible effects of individual foods on diarrhea do not give an accurate picture of how eating a diet that contains only those foods can affect the body. Some nutritional deficiencies could make diarrhea worse.
Following the BRAT diet for a limited time is unlikely to cause significant harm, but people should avoid using the diet in the long term.
Due to its risks and restrictive nature, the American Academy of Pediatrics do not recommend the use of the BRAT diet for children with diarrhea.
However, if these foods are part of a child's usual diet, the child can continue to eat them alongside several other foods.
Those who wish to follow the BRAT diet for a limited time may add other bland foods to their diet. Other bland foods include:
- saltine crackers
- clear broths
- potatoes without added butter, cream, or cheese
- sweet potatoes
- steamed, baked, or grilled skinless chicken without fat
As diarrhea can lead to dehydration, it is important that people drink enough fluids. A person with diarrhea can drink a range of liquids, including:
- clear broths
- apple juice
- herbal teas, especially ginger and peppermint
- coconut water
Oral rehydration products
People can purchase oral rehydration products over the counter at a pharmacy. They are available as a liquid, popsicle, or powder to mix with water.
Oral rehydration therapy can help treat diarrhea in adults and children with mild-to-moderate dehydration. People should take care to follow the instructions on the packaging.
It is best to avoid drinks with added sugar as they may make symptoms worse in some people.
Click here to learn about diarrhea and the use of oral rehydration therapy as a treatment.
Certain beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, may shorten the course of diarrhea. The bacteria that show the most promise for treating diarrhea include:
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Lactobacillus GG
- Saccharomyces boulardii
A 2014 study showed that Saccharomyces boulardii treatment was safe and effective for children with acute diarrhea. However, the study authors noted that more research was necessary to confirm the exact dosage.
Natural yogurt is an excellent source of beneficial bacteria. Other foods that are high in probiotics include:
- fermented vegetables
- miso soup
While maintaining a normal diet is often helpful during episodes of stomach illness or diarrhea, some foods are more likely than others to trigger nausea, vomiting, or loose stools.
- Dairy products. Milk, cream, cheese, and ice cream can be difficult to digest during an illness. However, natural yogurt and kefir are exceptions, as they contain probiotics that aid digestion.
- Sugar. Foods high in sugar, such as cakes, cookies, sodas, candy, and chocolate, can make symptoms worse.
- High fat foods and fried foods. Greasy foods can be difficult to digest and may make diarrhea worse.
- Alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic and can lead to dehydration. It can also irritate the stomach.
- Caffeine. Coffee, cola drinks, and black tea all contain caffeine, which may act as a mild diuretic.
- Spicy foods. These foods can irritate an already sensitive stomach.
- Artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners, including sorbitol and sucralose, can cause diarrhea in some people.
- Some vegetables and beans. Certain vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, tend to cause intestinal gas and bloating. Beans can also have this effect on some people. While this is not usually a cause for concern, people with a stomach illness may wish to avoid these foods until they have recovered.
- Heavy proteins, such as steak, pork, and salmon. Protein is difficult to digest and may place additional stress on the stomach, especially if the food is also high in fat.
People should consult a doctor if diarrhea:
- persists beyond 2 days
- occurs alongside a temperature of 102ºF or higher
- is frequent, recurrent, or severe
- accompanies rectal pain or bleeding
Similarly, people should seek medical care for symptoms of dehydration, which include:
- reduced urine output
- dry mouth
- feeling light-headed, dizzy, or weak
Parents or caregivers should take infants and children to see a doctor if they experience vomiting or diarrhea for more than 24 hours, cannot produce tears, have sunken cheeks, or exhibit any of the symptoms above.
Has the bland diet now replaced the BRAT diet when doctors recommend a dietary approach to managing diarrhea?
The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) recommend managing diarrhea by eating bland foods, which can be the foods on the BRAT diet.
However, they recommend consuming more than just the BRAT foods to avoid undernourishment. The IFFGD list a range of bland foods — including potatoes, noodles, yogurt, cream of wheat, some fruits and vegetables, and a small amount of peanut butter — that can increase nutrient content and electrolytes.Natalie Olsen, R.D., L.D., ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.