There’s no known cure for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But through careful diet choices, it’s often possible to control your symptoms. Here are a few dos and don’ts when it comes to what to eat with IBS.
About two in 10 people in the UK have IBS. It’s common.1 But what is IBS? Put simply, it’s a long-term condition that leads to frequent abdominal discomfort and bowel symptoms. It has no specific cause. And symptoms vary from individual-to-individual. This inconsistency means IBS is usually only diagnosed at the point when all other possibilities are ruled out.
Once you have the diagnosis, a common reaction is to change what you eat. But if you’re looking for a single diet that tells you what to eat with IBS, unfortunately this simple solution doesn’t exist. However, there are lots of foods that you can eat (or avoid eating) to help manage your symptoms. We pick up some of the key themes in these dos and don’ts.
DO know your IBS type
Bloating and constipation, or diarrhoea and stomach cramps? The symptoms you suffer will depend of your type of IBS. There are three varieties: IBS -C (constipation dominant), IBS-D (diarrhoea dominant) and IBS-M (mixed constipation and diarrhoea.) Your type is an important influence on what food to eat with IBS.
DO know your triggers
Most of us can’t remember exactly what we eat on a day-to-day basis. This is why it can be helpful to write it down. To start a food diary, write down everything you eat daily, including the time you ate it, and the severity and time of your IBS symptoms on the same day. This allows you to recognise patterns between your diet and any bowel discomfort. With this knowledge, you could then reduce or eliminate (with professional consultation) your trigger foods for IBS for a short period and see if your symptoms reduce. After a few weeks, gradually reintroduce the food and monitor the impact.
DO eat probiotics
The large intestine contains trillions of bacteria that break down food and regulate bowel function. There’s evidence to suggest IBS symptoms may be linked to some kind of imbalance between friendly bacteria and the other not-so-friendly species.2 Probiotics could help by topping up the level of good bacteria in the gut. This crowds out the more hostile varieties.
Probiotics can be found naturally in a number of foods – e.g. live, cultured dairy products and fermented foods. They also come in supplements.
DON’T eat too much fibre
Wondering what are the best foods for IBS? Fibre is probably at the top of your list. And fibre is great. It’s a rich source of prebiotic goodness, which feeds those helpful, friendly bacteria in your gut. It also helps maintain regular bowel movement. But it’s not a case of more must be best for IBS.
Most people benefit from a moderate increase in fibre intake. But, in some people with IBS, it can also exacerbate symptoms by increasing abdominal pain and bloating. So, finding the right level for you is key. And remember, water is also needed to help fibre to pass through the digestive tract. Increasing fibre and not increasing water can actually worsen constipation.
DON’T try a low FODMAP diet without professional advice
FODMAPs are a well-known group of foods that trigger IBS. You may hear claims that IBS can be treated by going on a temporary, restricted diet called the low FODMAP diet. The guiding theory is to replace high FODMAP foods that are poorly digested, with low FODMAP foods that easily breakdown in the stomach. This can reduce bloating, constipation and other IBS symptoms. Sounds good, but don’t rush in without professional advice.
A low FODMAP diet is very restricted, and if it isn’t implemented carefully, you risk missing out on vital nutrients. A dietitian can help identify which high FODMAP foods you’re most sensitive to and make sure you get the right nourishment from what you eat.
DON’T follow a friend’s experience of what to eat with IBS
Feeling inspired after a friend of a friend’s IBS symptoms disappeared when they started eating a diet rich in fermented foods? It may work for you too. Or you might get better results from another food source. IBS sufferers aren’t all sensitive to the same foods. Whilst for one person increasing fermented foods works, other people might find that these foods cause an increase in digestive upsets. It’s essential to find out what works for you.
So, in summary…
Foods to eat with IBS
- Fibre (in moderation). Stick to more soluble fibre sources and increase water intake too.
- Try them to see if they help relieve symptoms.
- Low FODMAP foods. But only eliminate high FODMAP foods with the guidance of a dietitian.
Foods to avoid with IBS
- Too much fibre. In particular insoluble fibre, which is harder to digest and can trigger IBS symptoms.
- High FODMAP foods. But seek advice before cutting them out.
- Your personal triggers. Whether it’s gluten or lactose, spicy foods or alcohol, the best IBS diet is the one where you cut out the foods that make the biggest difference to your symptoms.
It’s not all about what to eat with IBS
Many other things (as well as food) can exacerbate IBS symptoms. For example, eating habits – skipping meals or eating too quickly. Or it could be more to do with your lifestyle – stress, depression and anxiety can also contribute. It’s important to remember the food you eat isn’t the sole cause of IBS and to take a more holistic approach to managing your condition.
Last updated: 6 July 2020