Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is disorder that causes frequent abdominal symptoms, including diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and cramps.
While the exact cause of IBS is unclear, researchers believe that changes to a person’s lifestyle and diet can have a significant impact on the effects of the disorder.
IBS is different from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBS refers to a group of symptoms that point to a problem in bowel function. IBD is a disease that can cause inflammation and lead to permanent damage.
Some people with IBS find that certain foods worsen their symptoms and that eliminating these foods from the diet provides relief.
In this article, we offer general dietary advice for people with IBS and list specific foods to avoid.
Dietary recommendations for IBS often include the following:
- Eating more soluble fiber: This makes stool easier to pass, while insoluble fiber can aggravate IBS symptoms.
- Eliminating gluten, lactose, or both: Doing so could help ease symptoms.
- Limiting hard-to-digest carbohydrates: Some foods contain high levels of these carbs, which doctors call fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs).
Research indicates that consuming high-FODMAP foods may worsen symptoms of IBS, such as:
- stomach pain
- constipation, diarrhea, or both
A doctor or dietitian can help a person make dietary changes aimed at resolving IBS symptoms.
To identify triggers, they may recommend eliminating certain foods, then reintroducing them one by one to check whether each causes symptoms. They may also ask a person to keep a food journal and note when symptoms occur.
Different people may have different food triggers. However, some food groups and specific products are more likely to cause IBS symptoms than others.
The following can trigger symptoms of the syndrome:
- fruits: apples, apricots, blackberries, mangoes, cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, green bananas, watermelon, and pears, whether whole or in juice
- vegetables: artichokes, cabbage, asparagus, cauliflower, garlic, mushrooms, onions, soybeans, sweetcorn, green peas, snap peas, and snow peas
- pulses: lentils, beans, and chickpeas
- dairy products: milk, ice cream, sour cream, and cottage cheese, unless they are lactose-free
- insoluble fiber: bran, whole grains, nuts, corn, and the skins of fruits and vegetables
- wheat and rye products: breads and other baked goods, as well as products such as sauces that contain wheat flour for thickening
- sweeteners: honey, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, maltitol, or xylitol
A person may also want to avoid resistant starches, which are common in whole grains, partially baked breads, and processed foods, such as potato chips.
These reach the large intestine almost undigested, and during digestion in the colon, fermentation occurs, producing gas.
Other products that can cause or worsen IBS symptoms include:
- carbonated drinks
- teas and coffee
- pizza and other greasy foods
- fried foods
- spicy foods
- processed foods
- baked beans
- dishes made from dried pasta
- potato or pasta salads
- muesli, which often contains bran
However, keep in mind that the foods and drinks that trigger IBS symptoms vary from person to person. It is important for anyone with this condition to identify their own triggers.
While eliminating foods that cause or worsen IBS symptoms, a person may benefit from adding the following to their diet:
- Low-FODMAP fruits: These include blueberries, cantaloupe, grapes, oranges, kiwis, strawberries, and ripe bananas.
- Low-FODMAP vegetables: These include carrots, eggplant, green beans, spinach, squash, and sweet potatoes.
- Dairy alternatives: Lactose-free products may be a good bet, as may alternatives made from rice, soy, almonds, or oats.
- Yogurt: Some research indicates that probiotics, which can be found in yogurt, may improve IBS symptoms.
- Soluble fiber: Found in oats, psyllium, and some fruits and vegetables, this type of fiber helps regulate bowel movements.
- Sweeteners: Maple syrup without high fructose corn syrup or stevia can be healthful replacements for sweeteners ending in “-ol.”
It is also important to focus on healthful fats. For example, try replacing about three-quarters of the butter in a recipe with olive oil. If a recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of butter, try using 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter.
While it may not be possible to eliminate all the IBS triggers in a recipe, reducing their quantities can help.
Going to a restaurant can be stressful for a person with IBS, but the following strategies can help.
First, be sure to read the menu carefully. Check for ingredients that may cause symptoms and ask:
- What exactly does the dish contain?
- How much of a triggering ingredient is in the dish?
- Is it possible to prepare the dish without the ingredient?
Some people prefer to check the menu online and inquire ahead of time.
Also, it can help to:
Ask for a gluten-free or lactose-free menu: Some restaurants have them.
Check the base of soups: Broth-based soups are less likely to contain cream, which is a trigger for some people.
Find out what vegetable dishes contain: Check the ingredients in a vegetable medley or stir-fry.
Ask about added ingredients: Hamburgers, for example, may contain breadcrumbs or onions, both of which can worsen IBS symptoms.
Opt for grilled (not fried) foods: Grilled foods contain less fat and so can cause less stomach discomfort.
Bring a favorite dressing: Some people take along condiments from home, as commercial dressings and sauces contain additives that aggravate their symptoms.
It may be worth researching a restaurant’s options before booking a table.
Many people with IBS find that cooking food at home with fresh ingredients is a good way to avoid symptoms.
Here are some other tips that may help:
- Eat regularly and avoid delaying or missing meals.
- Eat smaller meals.
- Take time when eating.
- Eat no more than 3 servings of fruit a day.
- Limit the intake of tea and coffee to three cups per day.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat more protein than carbohydrates.
IBS is a common gastrointestinal disorder that can cause significant discomfort. A person’s diet can trigger or worsen symptoms.
Identifying and avoiding triggering foods and drinks can help a person with IBS enjoy their meals, at home or during a night out.