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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Health Center

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Finding the Right Diet for IBS

Expert Patsy Catsos, MS, RD, answers questions about eating for IBS.
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's not easy to find the right diet when you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  Eating certain foods can cause major discomfort for people with IBS, but figuring out which foods cause the symptoms is a highly individual process.

WebMD consulted gastrointestinal nutrition expert Patsy Catsos, MS, RD, author of IBS -- Free at Last!, for answers to your questions about diet and irritable bowel syndrome. 

 

What is irritable bowel syndrome and what are the symptoms?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often defined as abdominal pain and discomfort with altered bowel habits, in the absence of any other medical explanation for the symptoms. Patients with IBS often report gas, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.

How can you distinguish normal digestive problems from those needing medical evaluation?

Certain foods, like beans and prunes, can cause gastrointestinal effects in most people.  A certain amount of gas is normal and healthy. The average person produces 1-4 pints a day and passes gas 14 times!  It’s also normal for the consistency and frequency of your bowel movements to vary somewhat. 

However, if you are experiencing abdominal pain, a change in your bowel habits, or if your gas, diarrhea or constipation is interfering with your normal activities, you should see a doctor. It's important for your health care provider to help you rule out other problems, especially if you have any of the following:

  • Blood or pus in stools
  • Family history of colon cancer
  • Celiac disease
  • Fever
  • Malnutrition
  • Symptoms that wake you from sleep
  • Onset after age 50
  • A lump you can feel by touch
  • Unintentional weight loss

 

Can IBS be controlled by diet alone?

In the diarrhea-prominent type of IBS, the primary form of treatment is diet. Constipation can be more challenging to treat with diet alone. Other forms of noninvasive therapy that are routinely used are physical therapy and stress management, because studies show the mind-gut connection is very real.

Are there certain foods that aggravate the digestive system?

Each person is unique. But in general, foods that are high in fat, fried foods, spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeinated coffee and tea can be problematic. Some foods, such as beans, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peas, onions, and bagels, that can cause minor discomfort in a normal GI tract can cause significant bloating, gas, and abdominal pain in IBS sufferers.

What is the best diet for people with IBS symptoms?

There is no one-size-fits-all diet. A proper diet for IBS is highly individualized.

A high-fiber diet was thought to be the best diet for almost everyone with IBS, but recent studies have shown that this isn’t true for everyone.

For people with constipation, it's common to try a high-fiber diet of 25 grams daily for women and 38 grams for men to see if that helps. People should eat as much dietary fiber as they can tolerate, and understand that a certain amount of gas production is a sign of healthy gut microbes at work.  

The challenge is finding an acceptable fiber intake without experiencing debilitating abdominal pain and bloating, and frantic dashes to the toilet. And sometimes focusing on fiber alone doesn’t address the removal of potential trigger foods from the diet.

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