Dietary Changes for Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults

Gastroenterologists at NYU Langone may recommend making certain dietary changes to help relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. There is no single dietary recommendation for IBS, because everyone experiences symptoms differently, and different foods may trigger symptoms for different people. For example, dairy products may cause significant bloating and diarrhea in some people but not others.

Our physicians work closely with nutritionists to help you identify which foods trigger your symptoms. Being aware of these foods enables you to eliminate them from your diet, which may help alleviate gas, cramping, diarrhea, or constipation. 

It can take weeks or months to determine which foods trigger your symptoms. Seeing your gastroenterologist regularly and keeping a food diary can help you get on the right path to symptom relief.

Low-FODMAP Diet

Your NYU Langone gastroenterologist may recommend avoiding a group of well-known dietary triggers, often referred to as the FODMAP list, for six to eight weeks to determine whether cutting them from your diet alleviates digestive symptoms. 

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Foods containing these sugars can be difficult for some people, particularly those with IBS, to digest. 

If eliminating these foods helps, your physician recommends reincorporating foods from the “FODMAP” list one by one to determine which ones are the triggers. By avoiding these triggers, you may discover that you feel better. 

Foods high in fructose—a sugar commonly found in high amounts in some fruits—may cause IBS symptoms. Such foods include apples, mangoes, and watermelon. Processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup, such as sodas and candy, may also cause gastrointestinal discomfort.

Lactose, a sugar found in dairy products, may be difficult for people with IBS to digest. Foods high in lactose include cow’s milk and cream, ice cream, yogurt, and soft, unripened cheeses, such as cottage cheese, cream cheese, and ricotta. 

You may also want to avoid fructans, a type of carbohydrate found in grains and vegetables, such as asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, garlic, onions, and almost all types of breads, cereals, and pastas.

Galactans are another type of carbohydrate that may be difficult to digest. Foods containing galactans include beans, chickpeas—the main ingredient in hummus and falafel—and lentils. 

Polyols are a common ingredient in artificial sweeteners. They can also be found in avocados, berries, and peaches. Many sugar-free products contain polyols, including diet soda, candy, and gum. In addition, gum can cause bloating because the act of chewing pushes extra air into the stomach.

Caffeine, Alcohol, and Nicotine

Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine may aggravate IBS symptoms. Caffeine and nicotine stimulate the colon and can cause loose bowel movements or abdominal cramping. Coffee, tea, and energy drinks contain caffeine, as does chocolate. 

Beer, wine, and liquor may contain sugars that people with IBS find hard to digest and may worsen symptoms. 

People with IBS should avoid cigarettes and nicotine gum or patches because they can irritate the stomach. 

Our physicians strongly recommend quitting tobacco products. NYU Langone’s Tobacco Cessation Programs can help you.

Fiber

Fiber helps the body regulate digestion. Adding fiber-rich foods to your diet can relieve constipation in some people. However, people with IBS may find that foods containing high amounts of fiber—such as cereals or baked goods made with bran—are difficult to digest. These foods may cause gas, bloating, and abdominal cramping. 

Your physician and nutritionist may recommend slowly increasing your intake of fiber over a few weeks to find out whether adding it to your diet relieves symptoms. If fiber relieves constipation but increases abdominal pain or bloating, your doctor may recommend taking an over-the-counter supplement instead. This may help to bulk up the stool and improve regularity while avoiding the side effects of a high-fiber diet. 

It is also important to increase your fluid intake when increasing fiber in your diet.

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