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Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is the most common functional GI disorder affecting approximately 10-15% of the adult population.  It is also among the most common disorders seen by prescribers.   

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is a medical condition where a person experiences frequent abdominal symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, or both.

While doctors do not know what the exact cause of the condition is, they do know that it is a disorder that affects how the brain and gut interact.

When a person has IBS, they may notice that certain foods seem to trigger or worsen their condition.

What are IBS trigger foods?

Although these foods can be different for each person, doctors have identified some common “trigger” foods that tend to cause digestive symptoms over other ones.

If a person is hoping to control their IBS better, they may wish to eliminate some or all of these foods, then re-introduce them, one at a time, to identify which ones may be worsening their symptoms.

Foods to avoid

Various dairy products to avoid on IBS diet, including cheese, milk, cream, and butter.
Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and cream, may trigger IBS symptoms, and should be avoided.

Many doctors recommend what is called a low FODMAP diet to avoid triggering IBS symptoms. FODMAP is an acronym that stands for fermentable, oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols.

These names represent different carbohydrates known to worsen IBS symptoms by causing gas, stomach pain, and make constipation worse too. If a person has IBS, they may wish to talk to their doctor or work with a dietitian to determine if a low-FODMAP diet could benefit them and improve their symptoms.

Listed below are 16 foods to avoid on a low-FODMAP diet:

  • apples
  • artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, maltitol, or xylitol
  • baked beans
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • carbonated drinks
  • cauliflower
  • chickpeas
  • coleslaw
  • lactose in dairy products, such as milk, ice cream, sour cream, and cottage cheese
  • lentils
  • pears
  • sauerkraut
  • soybeans
  • watermelon
  • pizza and other fried foods

These are examples of the most common foods known to cause stomach upset when a person has IBS. A person may wish to keep a food and symptom diary.

In a diary, they can write down all the foods they eat and if they have any symptoms after eating them. By looking back over several days of food journaling, a person may be able to identify trigger foods that made their symptoms worse.

Swaps for trigger foods

Blueberry and muesli cereal topping bowl of yoghurt.
Blueberry and yogurt are potential food swaps that can provide essential nutrients.

Having IBS does not mean a person cannot eat vegetables or fruit. However, they can cook low-FODMAP foods and try to order these when they are out.

Examples of some swaps to make when a person has IBS can include:

  • Choose low-FODMAP fruits, including bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapes, oranges, kiwis, and strawberries.
  • Eat veggies, especially carrots, eggplant, green beans, spinach, squash, and sweet potatoes.
  • Increase calcium intake by eating yogurt instead of other lactose-containing foods. The natural bacteria found in yogurt can help to break down the causes of IBS discomfort for some people.
  • Substitute butter in recipes for olive oil. A person can typically substitute about three-quarters of the butter in a recipe for olive oil. For example, if a recipe calls for one-half stick of butter (4 tablespoons), a person can use 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter.
  • Substitute cow’s milk for lactose-free options, such as rice, soy, almond, or oat milk.
  • Limit or avoid artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, maltitol, and high fructose corn syrup as these may disrupt the intestinal microbiome and worsen IBS symptoms. Replace with maple syrup (without HFCS), or stevia, which is considered low-FODMAP.

While a person may not be able to eliminate all of a trigger food in a recipe, using the smallest amount possible may help to reduce symptoms.

Avoiding trigger foods in restaurants

Person eating out at restaurant ordering from menu.
When eating in restaurants asking about food preperation processes and asking for specific menus is recommended.

Going to a restaurant can be a stressful experience for a person with IBS. They want to enjoy themselves and have a nice dinner or lunch but may be afraid of hidden triggers added to dishes.

In addition to reading the menu carefully to avoid ingredients known to worsen IBS symptoms, a person may have to ask several questions or request substitutions to have a more enjoyable experience.

Some tips for ordering in restaurants include:

  • Asking for a lactose-free or gluten-free menu: Gluten-containing products can be a trigger for some people with IBS. By looking at a gluten-free menu only, a person is more likely to find foods they can safely eat.
  • Asking about the “base” of soups: This determines if cream, which contains lactose, has been added. Ordering broth-based soups can help to cut back on discomfort.
  • Asking what was used to prepare vegetables: Check the ingredients in a vegetable medley and avoid eating vegetables known to worsen IBS.
  • Asking if there are ingredients added: This happens with hamburgers, which may include problem ingredients, such as breadcrumbs or onions, both of which can worsen IBS symptoms.
  • Ordering grilled foods instead of fried foods: The reduced amount of fat from grilled to fried can help reduce stomach discomfort.

Some people may choose to bring salad dressing from home in a small travel container, to avoid potential sauce or salad dressing additives. For example, a gluten-free balsamic dressing can be delicious over grilled chicken or steak, as well as low-FODMAP veggies.

A person may also have to research a restaurant’s menu before going there. If there are little to no foods they could comfortably eat, they may need to suggest an alternate establishment that is more suitable.

Takeaway

According to an article in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in the industrialized world with a gastrointestinal disorder suffer from IBS. While diet is not the only triggering factor, it can play a role in a person’s symptoms.

By identifying food triggers and avoiding foods known to worsen IBS, a person can enjoy a night out without fear that they will have to run to the bathroom or experience stomach discomfort all night.

This information is designed for educational purposes only and should not be used in any other manner. This information is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified health care provider. A consultation with your health care professional is the proper method to address your health concerns. You are encouraged to consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition. Rapid advances in medicine may cause information contained here to become outdated, invalid or subject to debate. Accuracy cannot be guaranteed.