Eat to Beat Abdominal Distress

Learn how to identify trigger foods and change your eating habits to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Tired of dreading each meal out of fear you’ll need to run to the bathroom shortly after? For those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), symptoms (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, cramps and gas) tend to get worse following a meal.

“Diet has a major impact on IBS symptoms,” says Leslie Shaw, RD, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Digestive Disease Institute. People with this disorder often find relief by changing how they eat and what they eat. 

Write It Down
“Food triggers vary from person to person,” Shaw says. “It takes some time and effort to learn what foods are considered ‘safe’ for you and which ones provoke symptoms,” she says.

Try This

Drink some peppermint tea. Peppermint acts as a muscle relaxant and painkiller, according to Grace Keenan, MD, medical director of Nova Medical Group in northern Virginia. Allergic to peppermint or have acid reflux (which peppermint can exacerbate)? Try fennel tea, which reduces bloating and gassiness.

Start by keeping a food diary. Put a notebook in the kitchen and another one in your purse or pocket, and write down everything that you eat every day for one month. Include portion sizes and how your belly feels for the remainder of the day. Write down any symptoms. This information can help you and your registered dietitian or doctor come up with an eating plan that works.

QUIZ: What's Your Eating Style?

Pull the Triggers from Your Diet
Even though people with irritable bowel syndrome react to different foods with different symptoms, there are a few common dietary denominators. As you keep your food diary, take particular note of how you react to the following:

  • Dairy foods: Intolerance to lactose, the sugar in milk, has been found in up to 40 percent of people with IBS. Fortified orange juice or soy milk can help ensure you get adequate calcium and vitamin D, or you can take supplements to get these bone-building nutrients.
  • Fatty foods: Foods that contain high amounts of fat can bring on strong contractions in the colon. Typical culprits: red meats, dairy products, butter, eggs, pastries and doughnuts, oils and fried foods.
  • Gas-producing foods: If flatulence is one of your symptoms, try limiting beans, onions, broccoli and cabbage. Other items to reduce in your diet: carbonated drinks, including soda, which can cause abdominal pain. Additionally, swallowing too much air with your meals may add to your discomfort, so eat slowly.
  • Caffeine: Cut back on or eliminate foods and beverages with caffeine, including coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks and energy drinks. Caffeine can cause IBS symptoms to flare.
  • Fructose: Avoid products with high-fructose corn syrup (read labels to ascertain its presence — it’s frequently found in processed foods) and sugar alcohols (sorbitol, mannitol), found in “diet” foods. Both can aggravate IBS.

VIDEO: Why do I have Gas?

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