Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Controlling Symptoms With Diet


Many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) find that eating can cause symptoms of belly pain, constipation, diarrhea (or, sometimes, alternating periods of constipation and diarrhea), and bloating. Making some changes to your diet can provide relief.

  • Limit or eliminate foods that may make diarrhea, gas, and bloating worse. These may include caffeine, alcohol, carbonated (fizzy) drinks, milk products, foods high in sugar, fatty foods, gas-producing foods (such as beans, cabbage, and broccoli), and the sugar substitutes sorbitol and xylitol (often used in sugarless gum and sugarless candy).
  • To reduce constipation, add fibre to your diet, drink plenty of water, and get regular exercise.
  • Keep a daily diary of what you eat and whether you have symptoms after eating.
  • Eat slowly and have meals in a quiet, relaxing environment. Don't skip meals.

How do I control irritable bowel syndrome with diet?

Although there is no particular diet to follow, you can manage your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by limiting or eliminating foods that may bring on symptoms, particularly diarrhea, gas, and bloating. Make sure you don't stop eating completely from any one food group without talking with a dietitian. You need to make sure you are still getting all the nutrients you need.

Tips for controlling symptoms

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Have regular meals. Take time to eat.
  • Don't skip meals or wait too long between meals.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water.
  • Limit coffee and tea to 3 cups a day.
  • Limit the number of alcohol and carbonated ("fizzy") drinks you have.
  • It might help to limit the amount of high-fibre foods you eat, especially if you have a lot of gas and bloating. This especially includes whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.
  • Reduce the amount of "resistant starch" you eat. Resistant starch isn't digested well by your body and can cause gas and bloating. It is found in foods like cold or reheated potatoes, bread, and cereal.
  • Limit your intake of fresh fruit to 3 portions a day.
  • If you have diarrhea, avoid sorbitol. Sorbitol is the sugar substitute found in sugar-free chewing gum, drinks, and other sugar-free sweets.
  • If you have gas and bloating, eating soluble fibre (such as oats) may help.

Avoiding foods that might be causing symptoms

Many people find that their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms become worse after they eat. Sometimes certain foods make symptoms worse. Foods most commonly listed as causing symptoms include:

  • Cabbage.
  • Onions.
  • Peas and beans.
  • Hot spices.
  • Deep-fried and fried food.
  • Pizza.
  • Coffee.
  • Cream.
  • Smoked food.

Other types of food that can make IBS symptoms worse include:

  • A sugar found in milk, called lactose. About 1 out of 10 people with IBS also have lactose intolerance. Other people with IBS may have worse symptoms when they eat dairy. It's not a good idea to stop eating dairy altogether. Instead, try dairy products (like cheese and yogurt) that have less lactose, and spread the amount of dairy you eat throughout the day.
  • A sugar found in sweet vegetables and fruit, called fructose. In people with IBS, fructose may not be digested as it should. This can cause diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
  • A sugar substitute called sorbitol. If you have diarrhea, avoid sorbitol. It is found in sugar-free chewing gum, drinks, and other sugar-free sweets.
  • Caffeine. Caffeine can make the intestines move food along more quickly. But the most common digestive tract side effect of caffeine is acid reflux. In people with IBS, caffeine may not have much effect on diarrhea, gas, or bloating.

Keeping a food diary

Some people who have IBS use a daily food diary to keep track of what they eat and whether they have any symptoms after eating certain foods. The diary also can be a good way to record what is going on in your life. Stress plays a role in IBS: If you are aware that particular stresses bring on symptoms, you can try to reduce those stresses.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Brian O'Brien, MD, FRCPC - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Arvydas D. Vanagunas, MD, FACP, FACG - Gastroenterology

Current as ofMarch 28, 2018

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