What Are the Worst Foods for IBS? 5 Things To Avoid

What Are the Worst Foods for IBS? 5 Things To Avoid

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive condition that causes symptoms like frequent abdominal pain, discomfort, diarrhea, and constipation. 

While the exact cause of IBS remains unknown, certain factors are known to trigger symptoms. Diet is one thing that may impact IBS. While some foods might alleviate IBS symptoms, others can make symptoms worse.

Here are five foods that may be the worst for IBS. As you read through the list, keep in mind not everyone has the same trigger foods. What triggers one person may not affect another. Some people with IBS may be able to eat certain foods in moderation, while others need to completely avoid them to prevent a flare-up in symptoms.   

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These short-chain carbohydrates are poorly absorbed during digestion and ferment in the small intestine. Eating foods high in FODMAPs can trigger IBS symptoms like stomach cramping, bloating, pain, and diarrhea in some people. 

Foods high in FODMAPs include:

  • Some fruits and vegetables like apples, cherries, apricots, garlic, onion, and cauliflower
  • Grains like wheat, rye, and barley
  • Most beans, lentils, and peas
  • Dairy foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream (Research suggests casein, a protein found in milk, may also be an ingredient that triggers IBS symptoms.)

Artificial sweeteners like sugar alcohols can also be high in FODMAPS. The sweeteners are found in sugar-free foods like gum, candy, ice cream, drinks, protein powders, and protein bars. You can often spot them on an ingredient list in words ending in “-ol,” like sorbitol, erythritol, and xylitol. Since sugar alcohols aren’t fully absorbed in the gut, they can produce gas and bloating.

Large amounts of sugar alcohol may also trigger a laxative effect in people with IBS.

Following a low-FODMAP diet is often the first step in managing IBS symptoms. It involves eliminating high-FODMAP foods for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing them to identify specific triggers. Everyone’s tolerance will vary toward each food, so it’s important to find out which foods affect you. Even if a food is considered high-FODMAP, if you don’t experience any symptoms after consuming it, there’s no need to restrict it from your diet.

Gluten is a type of protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Products like bread, pasta, cereals, crackers, and baked goods may contain gluten.

Gluten may trigger abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and bowel movement urgency in people with IBS. The gut breaks down gluten proteins, but this process may be incomplete, leaving undigested gluten to trigger IBS symptoms. Research has shown when people with IBS follow a gluten-free diet, they may experience less diarrhea and stool frequency.

Unlike celiac disease, where a strict gluten-free diet is necessary, there isn’t enough data to indicate a specific gluten intake level is needed for IBS management. Therefore, a person with IBS should work with their healthcare provider or registered dietitian (RD) to determine a safe and tolerable amount of gluten to include in their diet. 

Eating greasy foods, which are rich in butter or oil or cooked in a combination of both, can be hard on your gut. Research has found that consuming greasy foods can trigger intestinal gas, bloating, and diarrhea in people with IBS.

Other fatty foods can also negatively affect IBS symptoms. Fried foods, such as meats, poultry, seafood, or vegetables, are high in fat. Other foods high in fat include breakfast pastries like croissants and donuts or baked goods like cookies or cakes. It takes longer for your body to break down and digest fat, leading to uncomfortable digestive issues. 

Fat is an essential food group and should not be avoided entirely. However, consuming a lower-fat diet and choosing healthy fats may be easier for your gut to tolerate. Focus on consuming healthy fat sources, such as olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. 

Spicy foods may trigger symptoms in people with IBS. Spicy foods include:

  • Chili peppers
  • Habaneros
  • Jalapenos
  • Hot sauce
  • Sriracha
  • Dried spices like red chili flakes and cayenne pepper

Capsaicin is the active compound found in these foods, which can speed up digestion and lead to abdominal pain, burning, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea, especially for those with IBS.  Research shows that people who consumed over 10 spicy meals per week were significantly more likely to experience IBS flare-ups.

This doesn’t mean you need to only eat mild-tasting meals. Start with a small amount of spice and gradually increase the amount to see how much you can tolerate. You can also add plenty of flavor to meals without the heat—try herbs like oregano, basil, and parsley or spices like cinnamon and cardamom.  

While caffeine stimulates your brain to be more alert, it can also stimulate your gut to move things along more quickly. This can trigger IBS symptoms such as increased urgency in bowel movements, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Coffee can also increase gastric acid secretion, which may cause stomach pain.

Caffeine is found in beverages like coffee, tea, and energy drinks and may be added to food products.

Not everyone with IBS needs to avoid caffeine entirely. Some people can tolerate small amounts or lower strengths. 

People with IBS should still aim to consume a well-balanced diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins. Although some foods can worsen symptoms, plenty of other foods can help improve symptoms.

Here’s a list of foods that most people with IBS can safely enjoy and include in their daily diet: 

  • Low-FODMAP fruits and vegetables: Fruits like bananas, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, oranges, and raspberries and vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, bell pepper, and tomato are low in FODMAPs. They’re also rich in vitamins and minerals. 
  • Lean meats: Choose cuts of chicken, turkey, pork, and beef with lower fat content. Opt for chicken breast, white meat turkey, sirloin, or tenderloin. Compared to fatty cuts, lean proteins are generally easier for people with IBS to digest.
  • Fish: Fatty fish like salmon, sablefish, mackerel, and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties that may help soothe the gut and reduce IBS symptoms. 
  • Grains: White rice, brown rice, quinoa, spelt, oats, buckwheat, millet, and gluten-free pastas and breads can be incorporated into the diet as tolerated. 
  • Fermented foods: Fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, pickles, and sauerkraut support a healthy gut microbiome and can aid with digestion, potentially easing IBS symptoms.

Everyone with IBS is different, so experiment and find the foods that work best for you. 

Avoiding or adding certain foods isn’t the only way to improve IBS symptoms. You can also manage IBS by doing the following:

  • Manage stress: Stress can worsen IBS symptoms. Consider techniques like deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, therapy, and regular exercise to manage stress. 
  • Get enough sleep: Adequate sleep is crucial for overall health and can improve IBS symptoms. 
  • Sip herbal tea: Peppermint, ginger, or fennel tea may provide relief for some people. 
  • Try supplements: Supplements like probiotics or peppermint oil may be beneficial. Always consult your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.

Visit your healthcare provider for further evaluation if your IBS symptoms worsen or become severe, you experience sudden changes in bowel habits, or you experience new symptoms altogether. Medical treatment, such as medication, may be necessary to manage your IBS. 

Having blood in your stool or losing weight without trying are not symptoms of IBS. If you experience either of these, you should see a healthcare provider to find out what is causing the changes.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that can cause a variety of digestive issues, including abdominal pain, discomfort, diarrhea, and constipation. Certain foods, including high-FODMAP foods like dairy products and artificial sweeteners, can trigger these symptoms. Gluten-based, greasy, and spicy foods may also worsen IBS symptoms.

Not every food will have the same effect on someone; you may have to do some trial-and-error to determine which foods trigger your IBS symptoms.

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