Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal condition that causes dramatic changes in bowel movements, leaving people grappling with bouts of diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of both.
In fact, around 70% of IBS patients find that specific foods cause severe cramps, abdominal pain, and other IBS complications that interfere with their daily activities and well-being. This makes it crucial to make dietary modifications to address this disorder.
But do IBS diets even work? And if they do, which dietary changes should you make? Let’s dig into that.
What is the role of your diet in IBS?
While the causes of IBS aren’t completely understood, many IBS patients associate their symptoms with their diet, especially if it includes fried and smoked foods, milk products, wheat products, hot spices, and onions. This means certain foods may aggravate IBS symptoms.
Several studies and surveys have reported the association between diet and IBS symptoms, with several showing that a diet rich in fatty and spicy foods can lead to a worsening of IBS symptoms.
Other studies suggest that a diet high in fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) can also make IBS symptoms worse.
What is an IBS diet?
An IBS diet is any diet that’s created to control or treat the symptoms caused by irritable bowel syndrome. It typically includes eliminating one or more food items from your daily intake and replacing them with healthier choices.
For instance, a low-FODMAP IBS diet requires you to cut out high-FODMAP foods like wheat, semolina, buttermilk, cream, legumes, fructose, and okra and replace them with low-FODMAP alternatives like brown rice, almond milk, bok choy, oats, and chicken.
Do IBS diets even work?
Your diet acts as a prebiotic that can facilitate the growth of certain bacteria. This can create products that reduce the density of GI cells to unhealthy levels and cause intestinal hypersensitivity, fast or slow gut movement, and abnormal gut contractions.
A dietary change can stop this onslaught of IBS symptoms by restoring the density of GI cells to healthy levels and reducing abnormalities in gut cells. This can lead to quality of life (QoL) and symptom improvements.
So, yes, IBS diets do work. However, individual results depend on your genetics, IBS type, medical history, overall health condition, and the specific IBS medication prescribed, as different medications may have varying effects on individuals.
Types of IBS diets
Now that you know that IBS diets do work, let’s look at five IBS diets you should check out when considering a dietary overhaul:
1. Low-FODMAP diet
A low-FODMAP diet eliminates all foods containing fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyphenols from your lifestyle, such as:
- Fructans – Broccoli, cabbage, barley, garlic, onions, and wheat
- Fructose – High-fructose corn syrup, honey, and fruit
- Galactooligosaccharides – Beans and legumes
- Lactose – Dairy products like milk, butter, and cheese
- Polyols – Celery, apples, and stone fruits
These foods produce gas when they’re fermented in the colon and lead to water retention, increasing the chances of diarrhea, gas, bloating, constipation, and other IBS symptoms.
They also cause gut inflammation and sensitivity, intestinal barrier dysfunction, and dysbiosis, which can all worsen IBS symptoms.
So, avoid any foods with more than 0.3 g of mannitol, 4 g of lactose, 0.3 g of fructans, 0.2 g of fructose, and 0.3 g of galactooligosaccharides. This has been shown to improve IBS symptoms in up to 70% of patients.
2. Elimination diet
An elimination diet involves cutting out any food group or item that you think is causing your IBS symptoms and introducing it a few weeks later to find out if it was really the trigger. It’s been shown to reduce IBS symptoms by 10% in the short term and by 26% in the long term.
The diet lasts five to six weeks and is divided into two phases:
- Elimination – This phase requires you to eliminate foods that trigger your symptoms for two to three weeks. It may involve cutting out all dairy, wheat, soy, or processed products.
- Reintroduction – This phase involves slowly introducing each food group you eliminated. You should watch for issues like bloating, stomach pain, bowel movement changes, and other IBS symptoms during reintroduction to identify trigger foods.
Once you’ve identified your trigger foods, you can easily remove them from your diet. But if you aren’t able to do that, try to repeat the phases again. They’ll help you narrow down IBS-causing foods.
3. High-fiber diet
A high-fiber diet involves consuming more fiber every day because a deficient intake of dietary fiber can lead to IBS. However, not all types of fibers help with IBS symptom relief.
For instance, soluble, highly fermentable fiber can cause gas production that leads to flatulence, bloating, and abdominal pain. Insoluble fiber can also trigger IBS symptoms. However, soluble, non-fermentable fiber can stop that from happening by limiting gas production.
So, if you’re struggling with IBS symptoms, try to increase your soluble fiber intake to 20 to 35 g daily to reduce abdominal pain and regulate bowel movements.
4. Gluten-free diet
A gluten-free diet excludes foods that contain gluten because they can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like gas, sharp stomach pain, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea. It’s classically recommended for patients with celiac disease. Some foods that contain gluten include:
But does this diet work for IBS patients? According to a four-week randomized, double-blind clinical trial that focused on 140 patients, a gluten-free diet caused a significant decrease in abdominal pain, gas, and other IBS symptoms.
Similarly, a 2020 study indicated that one month of sticking to a gluten-free diet (GFD) caused a 75% improvement in IBS symptoms. This means you should try the GFD if you’re experiencing IBS symptoms.
If you see improvements, switch to gluten-free products as much as possible. However, before doing that, get yourself tested for celiac disease because IBS and celiac disease have similar symptoms.
5. Low-fat diet
A low-fat diet involves limiting your total fat consumption to healthy guidelines because it can reduce gas absorption in the gut, cause gas retention, bloating, and gut sensitivity, and slow down intestinal movement (leading to constipation).
So, if you’re experiencing IBS symptoms after eating fatty foods, look at your fat intake and reduce it to either 30% to 35% of your total energy consumption or 40 to 50 g/dL.
Tips for making your IBS diet work
Now that we’ve taken a look at the different types of IBS diets you could go for, let’s check out some ways you can make them work:
1. Eat slowly
When you eat on the run, chew gum, or sip drinks through a straw, you introduce air into your stomach. This can cause bloating, gas, and stomach pain — and exacerbate IBS symptoms.
To avoid that from happening, try to eat slowly, focusing on each bite to reduce the amount of air you swallow.
2. Take smaller, more frequent meals
While the three-meal-a-day system works for many IBS patients, it’s better to eat smaller, more frequent meals. That’s because they place less stress on your gut, which allows foods to move regularly throughout the bowel.
Also, try to take a short walk after eating a meal because it can stimulate the intestines, reducing bloating and causing food to move quickly through the gut.
3. Use no or low oil
When you’re on an IBS diet, avoid frying your food because too much fat can cause digestive issues. Instead, pan-fry, air fry, roast, bake, or grill vegetables and meats like beef and chicken as much as possible to make sure you don’t irritate your gut.
Aside from that, you should also try to steam and peel vegetables instead of eating them as is. This can make them more digestible.
4. Exercise daily
It’s an established fact that exercise improves IBS symptoms. For instance, in a 2015 study, 54% of patients experienced significant IBS symptom improvement after increasing their physical activity from an average of 3.2 (0 to 10) to 5.2 (0 to 15) hours per week.
Similarly, in another study, increasing the daily step count from 4,000 steps to 9,500 steps led to a 50% reduction in IBS symptom severity. This means you should try to move around for at least 30 minutes to one hour daily to reduce IBS discomfort.
5. Be consistent
Once you find the right IBS diet for you, try to stick to it as consistently as possible. This may include making significant lifestyle changes, like avoiding caffeine, fatty foods, and alcohol. If you don’t make these changes, you might not experience any IBS symptoms relief.
Remember: you can’t use a low-FODMAP, gluten-free, or low-fat diet on an as-needed basis to treat acute IBS symptoms. So, get on the wagon early.
IBS diets summarized
If you’ve been struggling with severe bloating, abdominal pain, and irregular bowel movements whenever you eat a certain type of food item, you aren’t alone. Like millions of people, your IBS symptoms can be a direct consequence of your diet.
But it also means changing your diet is an effective way to reduce, relieve, and even eliminate your symptoms. And the good news is that there are several smart eating strategies that can help you control your IBS.
However, talk to your doctor before starting a new diet. They can help you understand which IBS diet is right for your symptoms.
Frequently-asked questions about IBS diets
Can the IBS diet completely cure IBS?
An IBS diet can relieve your symptoms and reduce their severity until you might not experience them for months, but it will not “cure” them.
Why? Because a cure means the disease won’t ever come back.
However, IBS diets work only as long as you stick to them — the moment you start eating the wrong foods, your IBS symptoms will return once again. New studies may help lead to a cure but we’re not there yet.
What are the main foods to avoid if you have IBS?
Since trigger foods vary among IBS patients, it isn’t possible to create a single list of things to avoid. But here are some common food triggers to avoid with IBS:
- Fried foods
- Wheat and rye
- Dairy products
- Beans and lentils
- Processed foods
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Sweeteners like xylitol, maltitol, sorbitol
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
What food should you eat with IBS?
Once you’ve eliminated all high-FODMAP items from your diet, substitute them with the following low-FODMAP foods:
- Quinoa, rice, and millet
- Potato spinach, pumpkin, kale, eggplant, celery, and carrots
- Pineapples, grapes, kiwis, blueberries, bananas, and oranges.
Also, don’t skip milk entirely. You can use lactose-free milk like cashew or almond milk instead.
Does breakfast help with IBS?
Yes, breakfast does help with IBS. If you’re thinking of skipping breakfast, don’t do it because it’s been linked to a higher risk of having IBS. So, try to always eat a healthy breakfast — whether it’s a bowl of oatmeal with berries or avocado on toast. Just be careful with the type of dairy foods you choose.