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Diet Advice for IBS

By Michele Turcotte, MS, RD ; Updated August 14, 2017

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) occurs when the intestinal muscles that contract to move waste materials through the digestive tract go into spasms, causing abdominal distress. When the process gets out of balance, alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation may occur (also known as spastic colon). IBS symptoms also may include abdominal pain, bloating and gas. Diet modifications are helpful for this condition.

General Advice

No single food or substance has been shown to be the sole culprit in setting off colon spasms, but dietary factors and stress are common triggers. Avoid foods that are known digestive system irritants (as well as foods you may be allergic or sensitive to), eat more healthy foods and avoid consuming large meals. Spread your food intake throughout the day to make it easier for your colon to handle. Adding exercise, simple yoga or walking (20 minutes three times a week is ideal) can reduce stress levels, which in turn may reduce IBS symptoms.

What to Avoid

Caffeine, alcohol and spicy foods are stimulants that may also be powerful colon irritants. Of course, each individual reacts differently, but if you suffer from IBS, the irritation caused by these foods can bring you to tears. Caffeine is found in coffee (in the greatest amounts), as well as in other foods such as tea, chocolate and sodas. Caffeine may set off cramping and diarrhea. A few too many cocktails at a dinner party and choosing extra hot peppers on your pizza can do the same thing. You don’t need to eliminate these foods entirely, but cutting back on them is a good idea.

Good & Bad Fats

Because it is hard to digest, saturated fat (and trans fats) can be colon irritants. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. Examples of foods rich in saturated or trans fats include stick butter and margarine, shortening, fried foods, beef fat, full-fat dairy products and commercially prepared cookies, crackers, coffee cakes and snack foods. Limit these foods. Foods rich in monounsaturated fats, such as olives and olive or canola oil, are more healthful, as well as easier on the digestive system.

Increase your intake of essential fatty acids (EFAs), especially the omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, halibut and tuna are the best sources. Nuts and nut butters, such as walnuts and peanut butter, avocados and crushed flax seeds or flax meal are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Fiber Intake

Some people suffering from IBS find that increasing dietary fiber worsens their symptoms. For example, if you experience a lot of bloating, gas or diarrhea (rather than constipation), reduce your fiber intake and see if you feel better. Adjusting fiber intake takes experimentation to perfect. Begin by getting your dietary fiber mostly from fruits, vegetables and whole grains (such as whole wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal).

Add psyllium (a powdered source of soluble fiber) gradually to your diet. This may help regulate bowel movements. Start by adding 1 to 2 teaspoons a day, and gradually increase to a full dosage over a one-week interval. Psyllium powder should be taken with plenty of fluids (ideally, 8 cups daily). The goal dosage is 1 to 3 teaspoons., taken once or twice daily, as needed. Mix the powder with water or diluted fruit juice. However, if it makes diarrhea worse, discontinue immediately.

Other Modifications

Eliminate gas-forming foods from your diet for about 2 weeks. Gas and bloating are common symptoms of IBS, so omitting foods that are known to cause or increase gas and bloating may be beneficial. Unfortunately, "gassy" foods are often healthy foods and include beans, peas, lentils, as well as the cruciferous vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, onions and garlic. After two weeks, gradually add these foods (one at a time) back to the diet, and see how your body reacts.

Adding decaffeinated herbal tea to your daily intake, such as calming chamomile tea, may help alleviate symptoms. Peppermint extract or peppermint tea has also been shown to be helpful for IBS. Although many people who suffer from IBS are often bothered by the lactose in milk, small amounts of yogurt help aid digestion, because they contain active live cultures, such as acidophilus, a natural probiotic. Probiotics help fuel "friendly" colon bacteria. Probiotics are also available in supplement form.

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