Top 10 Trigger Foods for IBS

Trigger Foods for IBS

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If you have IBS, the last thing you want to do is to eat something that is going to make your symptoms worse. In the following slides, you will find examples of the kinds of foods that have a reputation for being "IBS trigger foods" due to the effect that they may have on your digestive system.

However, just as every snowflake is unique, so is everybody. Therefore, you might find that you can tolerate a food that is taboo for your friend.  Only through keeping a simple food diary, tracking what you eat and how you feel, can you be assured that a specific food contributes to your digestive symptoms. It is important to remember that other factors, such as emotional upset or simply eating too large a meal, could also be playing a role in your digestive upset.

In order to help you in the process of finding your own triggers, let's take a look at some of the most likely culprits.

1. Greasy Food

containers of fried food meals
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Food with a high fat content can serve to increase the strength of intestinal contractions triggered by the body's own natural gastrocolic reflex. If you have a sensitive digestive system, you should avoid fatty meats and fried food. For example:

  • Pizza
  • Sausage
  • French fries
  • Fried chicken, fish or steak
  • Foods with heavy or creamy gravy

This doesn't mean to avoid fat altogether. Foods with healthy fat, such as fish and nuts can be quite beneficial for your digestive and overall health.

2. Dairy Products

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A large number of people suffer from a condition known as lactose intolerance, in which their bodies are unable to digest lactose, the sugar found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance can lead to digestive symptoms of bloating, cramping and diarrhea. Common dairy products include:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream

You may find that you can enjoy some cheeses that have low lactose levels such as  brie, Camembert, mozzarella, Parmesan, as well as lactose-free milk products.

3. Wheat

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Although a diet high in fiber is important for overall health, certain high fiber foods may be problematic. For individuals who suffer from celiac disease, ingesting a protein called gluten found in some whole grains (wheat, rye, barley) causes the body's immune system to attack the small intestine with the result of serious health problems. Even if you don't suffer from celiac disease, you may find that you have difficulty eating foods made with gluten-containing whole grains, due to the fact that they contain fructans, a type of FODMAPs.

Unfortunately, gluten-containing foods include such popular items as pasta, bread, and baked goods. Fortunately, it is now much easier to find gluten-free options.

Essential Reading:

4. High-FODMAP Fruits

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Researchers at Monash University in Australia have systematically tested various fruits for their FODMAP content. Foods higher in FODMAPs may be problematic for people who have IBS due to their fermentation and osmotic effects. The following fruits have been found to be high in FODMAPs:

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Blackberries
  • Cherries
  • Grapefruit
  • Mango
  • Pears
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums and prunes
  • Pomegranates
  • Watermelon

For a list of fruits that are more IBS-friendly, click here.

In addition, many people with IBS report that they have some difficulty with raw fruits. Cooking fruits may make them easier for your system to handle.

5. High-FODMAP Vegetables

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Like fruits, vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. However, some vegetables are also high in FODMAPs and therefore may contribute to your IBS symptoms:

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Scallions (white parts)
  • Shallots
  • Snow peas
  • Sugar snap peas

Don't avoid vegetables altogether! Vegetables are essential for your overall health and the health of your gut flora. For a list of more tolerable, low-FODMAP vegetables, click here.

Like fruits, some vegetables may be harder to tolerate if they are eaten raw. You may find that you can handle vegetables better if they are cooked or juiced.

6. Beans and Legumes

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You have probably learned the hard way that beans and IBS do not play nicely together. This is because beans and legumes contain carbohydrates that are poorly digested and thus are available to gut bacteria for fermentation, the by-product of which is intestinal gas. This includes the following:

  • Baked beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Butter beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Kidney beans
  • Lima beans
  • Soybeans
  • Split peas

If you are a vegetarian, you may find that it is challenging to meet your protein needs without eating enough beans and legumes. You may find that you can tolerate small amounts of canned lentils or chickpeas if they have been well-rinsed.

7. Spicy Foods

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An interesting study suggests that spicy food may contribute to the abdominal pain seen in IBS. The study found evidence that IBS patients have a greater number of a specific type of nerve fiber that reacts with pain to a substance within chili peppers. Chili peppers are a common ingredient in those spicy foods that set your mouth aflame.

8. Artificial Sweeteners

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Artificial sweeteners, typically those ending in -ol, found in many sugar-free and diet foods, are often poorly tolerated, resulting in symptoms of gas and bloating. Be sure to read the labels of the following products carefully:

  • Sugar-free gum
  • Sugar substitute packets for coffee
  • Sugar-free ice cream

Sweeteners that may be better tolerated include table sugar, maple syrup, and stevia.

9. Soda

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Although you may love your soda, it may not love you. Soda is carbonated which can contribute to problems with intestinal gas, and bloat. The high amount of sugar in regular soda may add to an imbalance in your gut bacteria, causing further gas. 

Diet soda is no better as your gut may react negatively to the artificial sweeteners.

Water, iced tea or diluted cranberry juice are much better options.

10. Alcohol

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Don't overlook what you are drinking when looking for IBS triggers. Alcohol has a long-standing reputation as being a GI irritant. Rum, in particular, is high in FODMAPs, as are many mixers.

This doesn't mean you can't occasionally enjoy a drink. Probably your safest bet is to stick to a small amount of red wine.

In-Depth Information on IBS Trigger Foods

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The following articles can help to guide you as to what to eat or not eat depending on your symptoms:

Akbar, A., Yiangou, Y., Facer, P., Walters, J., Anand, P. & Ghosh, S. "Increased capsaicin receptor TRPV1-expressing sensory fibres in irritable bowel syndrome and their correlation with abdominal pain" Gut 2008 57:923-929.

Farhadi, A. "I Have IBS…Now What?!!!" 2007 SanitizAir, Inc.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) "Irritable Bowel Syndrome"

Whorwell, P. " Dietary Aspects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)" Digestive Health Matters 2007 16:6-7.

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