Foods to Eat (and Avoid) If You Have Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Occasionally, you might eat something that upsets your digestion. Or life’s many stressors hit not just your head, but your stomach, too.

For the average person, this is normal, and tummy trouble clears up relatively quickly. But for someone with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), cramps, bloating, and more are basically the norm.

What you eat and how you manage your stress influences a lot of the good and terrible things that happen to your body. People with IBS are especially sensitive to what ends up on their plates — but choosing the right foods can change everything.

What is IBS — and why is it so hard to live with?

Stomach pain

Stomach pain |

IBS is a digestive disorder affecting the large intestine.  Common symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.

While your risk for many diseases increases as you get older, IBS usually impacts people under the age of 50. Having a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety also increases your chances of developing the condition.

Many people can manage their symptoms by controlling what they eat and maintaining minimal amounts of stress when possible. Typically, symptoms fluctuate from none at all to worse and back again. It becomes easier to predict these changes once you learn your primary triggers.

IBS is a chronic condition that requires constant management for a lifetime. Altering your diet to avoid your worst symptoms is one of the best and simplest ways to keep your digestive system (mostly) under control.

Foods you should be eating

Eating a diet containing a mix of fiber, healthy fats, and protein offers the best chance of avoiding severe IBS symptoms, or experiencing them less frequently. They work because they provide nutrients that are easier for your body to digest properly.

These foods are also low in or free of saturated fats, preservatives, and other elements that might lead to cramps, bloating, or other unpleasant symptoms:

  • Whole grains such as brown rice and pasta
  • Root vegetables such as parsnips
  • Fruits without skins if the extra fiber bothers you
  • Nuts and seeds as healthy fat sources
  • Animal proteins including meat, chicken, eggs, and fish.

The other half of the equation involves cutting back on or eliminating the foods that may or may not trigger your symptoms.

Foods to avoid

Baked Macaroni and cheese

Baked Macaroni and cheese | OksanaKiian/Getty Images

Certain foods can “trigger” symptoms, or worsen already existing symptoms in people with IBS. Though you might still be tempted to eat many of the foods that make you miserable, if you really want relief, it might be best to stay away from them as often as you possibly can.

Everyone’s triggers are different. So you might be able to eat some of the foods below without any problems, or have to stay away from a few of the suggestions above. In general, these are the foods that contribute to IBS symptoms most often:

  • Dairy products including yogurt, milk, and cheese
  • Beans and legumes, which can cause bloating and gas
  • Fried and processed foods can be high in fat and additives that trigger symptoms
  • Vegetables such as broccoli which can be difficult to digest.

What’s most important in terms of diet if you have IBS is to pay attention to how specific types of food make you feel. Keeping a food journal is a great way to reference your last few meals when you’re having a rough day to see if you can identify a possible culinary cause.

Of course, symptoms often result from a combination of changes in your hormones, difficult-to-control stressors, and diet. If tracking your symptoms isn’t working for you, it’s also OK to talk with your doctor about other things you can do to cope.

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