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IBS: the 5 trigger foods to avoid

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 6 days ago Naomi Mead
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder affecting the colon, characterised by fluctuating abdominal pain or discomfort, and altered bowel habits. Certain food and drink is known to play a key role in IBS. Here's what you might want to avoid eating and drinking to ease your IBS symptoms. © Michael Heim / EyeEm - Getty Images Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder affecting the colon, characterised by fluctuating abdominal pain or discomfort, and altered bowel habits. Certain food and drink is known to play a key role in IBS. Here's what you might want to avoid eating and drinking to ease your IBS symptoms.

Do you feel bloated and uncomfortable after eating certain foods? You could be suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

IBS is thought to affect an estimated 20 per cent of the UK population at any one time - and there are likely to be even more people who do not report symptoms to their GP.

For sufferers, IBS is as irritating as it sounds, and in severe cases, can be seriously debilitating. We speak to Registered Dietitian and Gut Health Specialist Megan Rossi about which foods are known to trigger the symptoms of IBS. 

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What is IBS?

IBS is a chronic disorder which affects the colon, characterised by bloating, fluctuating abdominal pain or discomfort, and altered bowel habits. Symptoms of IBS include bloating, cramping, pain, diarrhoea, constipation and in many cases an alternation between the two.

Food is known to play a key role in IBS. More than 60 per cent of patients with IBS report the onset or worsening of symptoms after meals, occurring within 15 minutes in 28 per cent of these patients, and within three hours in 93 per cent. Dietary triggers are common, with 84 per cent of sufferers reporting symptoms related to at least one food item.

One way to limit IBS symptoms is to restrict known food triggers from your diet. 'The below recommendations are endorsed by the British Dietetic Association IBS dietary guidelines,' says Rossi. 'Although they don't trigger symptoms in every individual with IBS, we recommend assessing your diet, and if any of these relate to symptoms then to restrict these foods/drinks.'

1. High FODMAP foods

FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are basically different types of carbohydrates and sugars that either don't digest, or don't absorb well, in the gut.

High FODMAP foods include garlic, onion, wheat, milk, ice cream, mushrooms, apricots, peas and beans, to name just a few (a detailed list can be found here). A diet low in FODMAPs is scientifically proven and has been shown to achieve adequate relief of symptoms in around 70 per cent of people with IBS.

While the need to cut out so many foods from the diet may seem both unrealistic and daunting, the good news is that it's only for the short-term. A low FODMAP diet consists of three stages:

  1. The removal of all high FODMAP foods from the diet for 6-8 weeks.
  2. The gradual reintroduction of foods, up to a level of personal tolerance.
  3. The maintenance diet, where the individual avoids now-discovered high FODMAP triggers for their symptoms.

It is important to note that a low FODMAP diet should only be done under the supervision of a registered dietitian.

IBS: the 5 trigger foods to avoid © Getty Images IBS: the 5 trigger foods to avoid

2. Alcohol

It's important not to overlook your drinking habits when considering IBS triggers. Observational studies have shown that alcohol can induce or worsen IBS symptoms. Alcohol can affect the motility of the digestive tract (IBS symptoms are believed to be caused partly by abnormal gut motility), and is a well-known gut irritant.

Some alcoholic drinks and mixers are also high in FODMAPs - particularly rum, sweet wines, and fruit-based cocktails. Advice is to limit alcohol intake to no more than two units per day, and to maintain at least two alcohol free days a week.

a pizza sitting on top of a wooden table: IBS triggers © Getty Images IBS triggers

3. High-fat meals

High-fat meals have been shown to exacerbate symptoms in IBS. In fact, compared to healthy people, studies have shown that those with IBS have a more sensitive gut following a high-fat meal. Fatty foods are thought to alter gut motility, and effect gut hormone release which may further influence motility.

Common high-fat triggers include: fried meats, chips, sausages, pizza, pies, crisps and creamy sauces. You do not, however, need to follow a low-fat diet. Focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish.

a cup of coffee © Getty Images Cup of coffee

4. Caffeine

Observational studied have linked caffeine with worsening IBS symptoms. Caffeine can increase gut motility, and can also increase stress hormones such as cortisol which may lead to over activation of the gut-brain axis (this how the gut and the brain communicate, and a dysregulated gut-brain axis is thought to underlie the main features of IBS). Remember that caffeine is not only found in tea and coffee, but in many soft drinks and energy drinks also.

a close up of a flower: Red chilli peppers in a jar © JBfotoblog - Getty Images Red chilli peppers in a jar

5. Spicy food

Hot and spicy dishes are a commonly reported trigger of IBS-like symptoms. The active component of chilli is called capsaicin, which has been shown to increase gut motility and abdominal pain in some individuals.

Other components often found in spicy meals, such as garlic and onions (both high FODMAP foods), may also contribute to symptoms. Dietary changes can often help IBS symptoms and sometimes small and simple changes are all that are needed.

⚠️ Because food triggers vary between individuals, the best way you can monitor this is by keeping a food and symptom diary, and remember that the list above is not exhaustive. If you need further help, seek advice from a health professional.

Gallery: If you're constantly feeling bloated, you need to try these tricks [Prima UK]

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