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What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common gastrointestinal disorder. Nearly 10% to 15% of American adults have IBS. There is no universal treatment option to help alleviate IBS symptoms such as stomach pain and cramps, excessive gas and bloating. However, IBS is manageable with lifestyle changes that include nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.

You may feel uncertain about what to eat or concerned that you will need to be on a restrictive diet after being diagnosed with IBS. The good news is that a gastroenterologist and registered dietician can help create an individualized plan to:

  • Identify your trigger foods
  • Develop a healthy eating plan to keep your symptoms in check
  • Modify your favorite foods (such as substitute dairy with dairy-free)

Do not start a new diet without first consulting your doctor.


Understanding IBS and diet

What are the most common dietary triggers for IBS?
  • Dairy
  • Fried, fatty and processed foods
  • Gluten
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • High FODMAP foods
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Chewing gum
  • Spicy foods


How can my diet help with managing my IBS?

The food you eat can drastically change how you feel, especially if it triggers an IBS flare-up. Following an elimination diet under close guidance from a gastroenterologist and registered dietician can help evaluate your food sensitivities and intolerances.

You will remove certain food groups over several weeks, then slowly reintroduce the foods. This will help identify the foods that give you the recommended nutritional balance while reducing the risk of an IBS flare-up. 

Talk to your doctor before changing your diet. Some foods may not be recommended for certain patients with preexisting medical conditions.


What are IBS-friendly foods?


FODMAPs are fermentable short-chain carbohydrates commonly found in a person's diet. Research has shown that FODMAPs are not absorbed well by the small intestine, which causes increased fluid in the bowel and leads to gas, bloating and changes in how long food takes to digest.

Studies have shown that a low FODMAP diet decreases common symptoms for patients with IBS, including bloating and gas, stomach pain and diarrhea.

Low FODMAP foods include: 

  • Fruits (bananas, cantaloupes, grapes and oranges)
  • Vegetables (pumpkin, lettuce, cucumbers and spinach)
  • Lean meats, lactose-free dairy products, eggs and hard cheeses

High FODMAP foods should be avoided, including apples, garlic, onion, avocado, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soft cheeses and dairy products with lactose.


Soluble fiber

Daily fiber intake is essential for maintaining healthy digestion. Adults should get 22 to 34 grams of fiber a day, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Patients with IBS may be concerned that adding fiber will exasperate symptoms. However, finding the right balance of fiber with foods that minimize flare-ups can help symptoms—especially for patients who have IBS with constipation.

Research has shown that soluble fiber is more helpful in relieving IBS symptoms because it slows digestion.

Some foods you can add to your diet that are low in FODMAP and high in soluble fiber include: 

  • Seeds (sunflower seeds, chia seeds and flax seeds)
  • Whole grains (brown rice and quinoa)
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Vegetables (carrots, green beans, white potatoes and sweet potatoes) 
  • Fruits (kiwis, lemons, limes, blueberries and strawberries)

Cooked vegetables

A diet rich in fruit and vegetables has numerous health benefits. However, consuming too many raw vegetables can be hard on the digestive system and cause IBS symptoms. Cooked vegetables are easier to digest. Your dietician can help you create meals with cooked vegetables that maintain nutritional value. 

Lean meats, fish and eggs

High-fat foods, including fatty red meat, overstimulate the digestive system and can be more difficult to digest. Incorporate more lean meats in your diet:

  • White meat chicken
  • White meat turkey
  • Pork 
  • Fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, whitefish, sardines)
  • Lean cuts of beef (sirloin, filet, top round, eye round, bottom round)
  • Eggs in any form

Lactose-free and dairy alternatives

Lactose and casein found in dairy can be a trigger for patients with IBS. Try using it in limited amounts or switch to an alternative such as lactose-free, soy, nut and oat variants.  

Remember, being diagnosed with IBS does not mean you have to be overly restrictive about what you eat or avoid sharing a meal with family and friends. With help from a gastroenterologist and a registered dietician, you will learn about the best diet that reduces IBS symptoms while ensuring a healthy nutritional balance with foods you enjoy eating.

Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.

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