Diet alone doesn't cause ulcerative colitis or other inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), and avoiding certain foods won't cure these conditions.
"But following a proper diet can help ease symptoms and promote healing," says David T. Rubin, MD, co-director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at the University of Chicago. In other words, choosing the right foods can make it much easier to live with ulcerative colitis and other chronic conditions.
Whenever Serena Ehrlich goes someplace new, she scouts out the location of the bathroom. That's because Ehrlich, 38, a Los Angeles-based salesperson for a commercial wire service, has ulcerative colitis. She developed the disease 12 years ago and has been in remission for the past three. Still, the old habit lingers. "Everyone who has ulcerative colitis will tell you that when you walk into a bookstore, a shop, or a restaurant, that's the one thing you want to know first. It's our rule of thumb."
• Eating nutritious meals composed of foods that are easy to digest and may even soothe the bowels.
• Avoiding foods that irritate or otherwise aggravate your symptoms.
It sounds easy. But in practice, knowing which foods to choose and which to avoid can be tricky. Certain items frequently show up on lists of IBD offenders, including:
• Foods containing caffeine
• Acidic foods
But doctors say there's very little rhyme or reason to what causes problems for one person and not another. Even the same sufferer may experience a flare-up with a particular food at one meal and not at another.
How can you know which foods affect your symptoms? The best strategy, experts say, is to keep a food-and-symptom diary. "Every patient is different," says Rubin. "Individual experience should guide your food selection. That's why keeping a food diary for a few weeks can be very useful."
Dear Diary: Diet and Ulcerative Colitis
The idea is simple. By recording exactly what you eat over a period of time and how you feel afterward, you can nab particular foods that cause your symptoms to flare up. You'll also be able to identify foods that soothe your digestive tract.
Make recording your meals convenient for you. Some dietitians recommend using a notebook small enough to carry with you. That way you can jot down what you eat at meals and in between throughout the day. Others say it's fine to keep a notebook by the side of the bed and record everything you ate that day before going to sleep.
"Most people are pretty good at remembering what they ate over a 24-hour period," says dietitian Tracie Dalessandro, RD, author of What to Eat with IBD. "I find that filling in the diary just once a day is easier and more convenient for many people than pulling it out after every meal."
Keeping an Ulcerative Colitis Diary: 5 Tips for Top Results
Whatever approach you choose, these strategies are worth remembering:
• Write down everything you eat. A food-and-symptom diary only works if you record everything. The more accurate your inventory, the more reliable the insights you'll get. Your dietitian may also want to review your food diary to make sure you're eating a well-balanced diet that provides all the nutrients you need, so an accurate record is crucial.