It’s estimated that between 25 and 45 million people are affected by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the United States alone, with women more likely to suffer from IBS than men. While IBS is not a serious disorder, it can affect a patient’s quality of life. Managing IBS has a lot to do with dietary and lifestyle changes. Eating the right foods and figuring out food triggers for a patient with IBS can be life-changing. Read on to learn more about IBS and some of the worst foods for IBS (and the best!).
What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder that affects the large intestine. It is a chronic condition for which there is no definitive cure, but many people with IBS find that a change in lifestyle and diet works to help keep symptoms at bay without using medication.
Irritable bowel syndrome is not a serious condition, but it can be an uncomfortable one and can affect patients’ quality of life when there is a flare-up. IBS is known as a functional GI disorder. These disorders, also known as disorders of the gut-brain interaction, are concerned with how your gut and brain interact together. The long-term outlook for IBS is good, provided the patient is compliant with diet and lifestyle changes.
Because the gut and brain are not working properly together, this can cause sensitivity in the digestive tract, which can lead to uncomfortable symptoms such as diarrhea. Common symptoms of IBS include:
- Gas and bloating
- Abdominal pain
- Changes in bowel habits
There are also several types of IBS, depending on the symptoms you describe to your team of healthcare professionals. These include:
- IBS-D (IBS with diarrhea): Most of your bowel movements are watery and loose.
- IBS-C (IBS with constipation): Most of your bowel movements are hard and difficult to pass
- IBS-M (IBS with mixed bowel habits): Bowel movements vary between constipation and diarrhea, often on the same day
If your gastroenterologist gives you an IBS diagnosis, it’s important to know what type. If it’s decided that medication is appropriate, only certain medicines will work with certain types of IBS.
IBS most commonly appears between the late teens and early 40s and is more common in women. Other risk factors include a family history of IBS, food intolerances, stress and anxiety, or a history of sexual or physical abuse.
Triggers for IBS are different for every individual. Those who eat the worst foods for IBS, such as high-FODMAP food, will likely have more flare-ups than those who are paying more attention to their triggers. Eating the right foods for IBS is imperative to help manage symptoms and prevent flare-ups. Elimination diets can help identify triggers. Patients may also want to adopt a gluten-free diet or lactose-free diet to monitor changes.
Diagnosis for IBS may require several different things. First, your physician will give you a physical exam and ask about your medical history. Then, you will discuss your symptoms with your physician. Because IBS symptoms and symptoms of more serious gastrointestinal disorders or similar, your doctor may want to order other tests to rule out other conditions. These may include X-rays, blood tests, and stool samples.
Depending on your symptoms, your gastroenterologist may order a colonoscopy. This diagnostic test can help diagnose colorectal cancer as well as many other diseases of the large intestine. While you do have to prep for the test by emptying your bowels, the test itself is a short, outpatient procedure, where you’ll receive anesthesia so you won’t be uncomfortable. The physician uses the colonoscope to look for diseases, if polyps are found, they can be removed during the procedure. The doctor will also likely take biopsies and tissue samples to be sent to the lab.
The Best Foods for IBS
The best foods for IBS will be ones that are low in FODMAPs, which you will learn about below. People look at foods such as fruits, vegetables, and certain grains, thinking they’re eating healthy—however, in an IBS patient, some of these foods can trigger symptoms. Some of the best foods for IBS include:
- Eggs. Eggs are easy to digest and don’t upset the colon. Also, they are a great source of protein as part of a weekly diet. However, not everyone digests eggs the same. If you’re cutting out the worst foods for IBS and are still having GI upset, an elimination diet can help figure out food triggers.
- Lean meats. Lean meats are another great source of protein and give you a lot of food options for meal planning. Lean meats include lean cuts of beef (e.g., sirloin, top/bottom round steaks), pork, white meat chicken, and white meat turkey. Some physicians also advise free-range or grass-fed meats, as the high content may benefit gut bacteria.
- Salmon and other fish high in omega-3s. This also includes herring, black cod, anchovies, whitefish, sardines, rainbow trout, and mackerel.
- Low-FODMAP foods. Below is a list of many low-FODMAP fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds:
- Bell peppers
- Green beans
- Potato and sweet potato
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Baby spinach
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
Now, this is quite a long list, and it may take a while to remember which foods are low in FODMAPs. If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, a good rule of thumb is to try several foods on this list at a time and slowly work your way up to all of the recommended foods. Just because it’s low in FODMAPs doesn’t necessarily mean it will agree with you.
Those with IBS can also consume bone north and fermented foods, which are loaded with probiotics.
Some other tips to manage IBS include:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid caffeine (tea, coffee, soda, chocolate)
- Increase fiber intake
- Take a fiber supplement in addition to eating fiber-rich foods
When it comes to activity changes, it’s wise to exercise regularly, eat smaller meals at a sitting, try meditation or relaxation techniques, and quit smoking. Increased activity and exercise are also associated with fewer IBS flare-ups.
The Worst Foods for IBS
Consuming the worst foods for IBS can trigger flare-ups. Your doctor will likely suggest a low-FODMAP diet, but in general, these are the worst foods for IBS:
- Lactose. Lactose is found in milk and other dairy products, and while those with IBS may not be fully lactose intolerant, it’s best to avoid dairy as much as possible. A good alternative is lactose-free milk.
- Certain fruits and vegetables. Fruits with high levels of fructose, such as apples, pears, and watermelon, can trigger IBS symptoms. Instead, eat fruits with lower levels of fructose, such as grapes, berries, citrus fruits, and bananas. Cruciferous vegetables can also contribute to IBS flare-ups. These include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, shallots, and asparagus.
- Beans and legumes. Beans are associated with causing gas and bloating in those without IBS. Those with irritable bowel syndrome should avoid beans and legumes as much as possible.
- Sugar alcohols and substitutes. These can be found in chewing gum and other candies and include sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, and xylitol.
The FODMAP Diet
FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols,” which is quite a lot to remember. More generally, it refers to short-chain carbohydrates that are harder to digest. In those with IBS, eating a high-FODMAP diet can cause symptoms, such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. If you receive an IBS diagnosis, your gastroenterologist will likely recommend the low-FODMAP diet.
Many of the low-FODMAP foods were already listed in the “best foods for IBS above,” but here’s another snapshot of what a FODMAP diet may look like:
- Dairy: Almond milk, soy milk, lactose-free milk
- Grains: Quinoa, white rice, corn flour, oats, gluten-free pasta
- Protein: Lean meat and tofu, including beef, pork, chicken, fish, and eggs
- Fruits: Strawberries, bananas, citrus fruits, blueberries
- Vegetables: Carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, olives, potatoes, and turnips
Make sure that you talk with your gastroenterologist or a registered dietitian before beginning any new type of diet.
Other IBS Causes
While food is a known trigger of IBS, no one knows exactly what causes it. Researchers believe it is attributed to a number of factors. One of the most common schools of thought is gut-brain dysfunction, but there may be other causes. A patient may have dysmotility, which means that there are problems with GI muscles, or visceral hypersensitivity, which means the nerves in the GI tract are oversensitive.
Contact a Gastroenterologist Today
If you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms that persist and are uncomfortable, such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, you should consult a gastroenterologist for a definitive diagnosis. Those symptoms are all associated with irritable bowel syndrome but could be indicative of other GI distress as well, so it’s important to talk to a professional. Schedule an appointment today, and our team of physicians and healthcare professionals will work together to help manage your symptoms, diagnose, and offer you quality and comprehensive treatment for all types of gastrointestinal disorders.