What's the Best Diet for IBS?
Spoiler alert: I don’t have a the magic answer. When it comes to the question of "what’s the best diet for IBS?” there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer. If you’re anything like me, I know you want there to be one. I know that would make your life soooo much easier. You’re busy, you want to enjoy your life, and you’re so tired of feeling controlled by your IBS. You want someone to tell you what to eat that will make it all go away so you can feel normal again. Who doesn't want a quick fix. Well, the reality is that there is no one best diet for IBS.
Answer: the best diet for IBS is the one that works for you.
The reason is that everyone is so different. You are unique. You’re a completely different person from your best friend, or even your mum. That means that, if cutting out gluten helped your best friend’s IBS, it won’t necessarily help yours. Likewise, if garlic makes your mum’s stomach blow up like a balloon, it might have no effect on yours. Everyone is different and the exact same food affects different people in different ways. Not only that, but it can affect the same person in different ways, in different situations. Ever wondered why you eat a meal and feel great, but then eat the EXACT SAME THING the next day and your stomach feels like it’s punching you from the inside? You’re not the only one.
This all comes down to the concept of ‘bio-individuality’, something that the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (where I’m studying at the mo) stresses. Sounds complicated, but the idea behind this is that ‘one person’s food is another’s poison.’ I see this in action every time my fiance eats a delicious (to him) slice of garlic bread, whilst I know that one bite of that will cause me days of pain.
THE BEST DIET FOR IBS IS INFLUENCED BY ALL OF THESE FACTORS, AND MORE..
1. BODY SIZE
Think about it. Your 5ft, size 6 friend is not going to need to eat the same amount of food as your 6ft, rugby playing brother. Portion sizes on packets and recipes are just an average of the ideal portion size. That doesn’t mean they’re the right portion size for you. Therefore, that rugby playing brother with IBS may be fine to eat a 500g steak and pile of mash but, if you eat the same thing, you’re likely to feel a tad bloated. Therefore, the amount of food that’s best for you depends on you.
2. MEN VS WOMEN
On a similar note, men normally need more food than women. We also have completely different hormones, which influence how we respond to and digest different food types. For example, men typically respond much better to the Keto diet than women, due to different hormones.
3. LEVEL OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
You’re going to need different types of food if you’re a construction worker vs if you work in an office and the most exercise you get is getting up to go to the toilet. Equally, if you’re training for a marathon vs if you do a few gentle yoga classes a week. These things affect not only the amount of food, but the type of food your body needs.
4. TIME OF YEAR
This might sound silly, but your body needs different foods in different seasons. When it’s freezing cold and dark outside, you need more warming foods and extra vitamin D that you’re not getting from the sunlight. There might be things that you’re eating in one season, like asparagus or watermelon, that cause you big stomach problems. Also, sometimes when your body overheats, it affects your gut’s ability to digest.
A child is going to need very different foods than someone in their 70s. Children are growing, so need lots of calcium, whereas your digestion slows as you age, so older people won’t need as many calories. Your digestion changes as you age, as does your gut micro-biome. This means foods that you used to eat every day without a problem, can suddenly cause you to feel all bloated. Your tolerance to foods changes with age, so the best diet for IBS for you now might be different to the best diet for IBS when you were 15. It will also probably be different from the best diet for IBS for you in 5 years time.
6. DAY OF THE WEEK
Ever noticed that you can eat something on the weekend and you’re fine, but then you eat it in the week and you’re not? There are so many factors that change based on the day of the week - stress, routine, level of activity are just a few examples. You might be fine with a bacon sandwich on the weekend, but then you have a sandwich for lunch on Monday (with the exact same bread) and your stomach blows up. That’s likely the impact of a higher stress level on the Monday, which can have a huge effect on your gut and affect the way it digests the same food.
This is a huge one, especially when it comes to IBS. When discussing the best diet for IBS, the effects of gluten and dairy are often talked about. However, whether these affect you will be massively influenced by your culture. For example, I live in Malaysia at the moment and I am constantly being advised to give up dairy, which drives me mad. Nobody is trying to annoy me, dairy is just a very common cause of gut problems in Asia. A lot of the Asian population is lactose intolerant, because they didn’t evolve to digest milk, so they lack the lactase enzyme needed to break it down. On the other hand, societies that domesticated cattle years ago, such as Northern Europe, genetically adapted to digest milk.
There was another study done recently, published in the New York Times, which showed that the Inuit people (living in Greenland, in this example) had genetically adapted to break down Omega-3 and fatty acids. However, people in other societies didn’t have this adaption so lots of Omega-3 might not actually be good for them.
So, when working out the best diet for IBS, you’ll need to take your culture into account.
SO, WHAT’S THE BEST DIET FOR IBS?
Hopefully the above gives a bit of perspective and shows why it’s unrealistic to think that the same diet that helps with your friend's IBS will help with yours. So, try not to compare yourself to others and get angry that things aren’t working for you.
The best approach to take is to try different things and see how they effect you. If you think gluten might be the culprit, try removing it from your diet for 30 days and see if it makes you feel better. If you’re completely cured, great. If not, great too - you can reintroduce gluten and try something else. If it’s helped a little bit but not completely, try something else for another 30 days. Keep going until you’ve worked out what works for you. It’ll take time, but it’ll be worth it.
Also, don’t think it ends there, and that's you, not eating avocado for the rest of your life. As mentioned, your tolerance to different foods will change over time, so it’s always worth going back and testing again. It could be very positive, in that you could discover in 2 years time that you can eat something you love that you just can’t tolerate right now.
HOW THE LOW FODMAP DIET FITS IN
Sometimes, you just want a bit of structure and you want a plan. This is where it could be a good idea to try the low FODMAP Diet, which is a form of the above ‘testing’ but with a structure. The low FODMAP Diet involves eliminating 5 groups of sugars, that are proven to cause gut problems in people with IBS (find out more here). You do this for a 2-6 week period and then gradually reintroduce the sugar groups one by one. This helps you to work out what your unique triggers are.
That’s why the way some people talk about this diet drives me mad. It is not a case of having a list of ‘good’ foods that you can eat and a list of ‘bad’ foods that you can’t. It’s not that simple and it’s not about there being one right way of eating for everyone. Despite being called a ‘diet’ it’s really just about learning what foods are good and bad for YOU. That's why you test different food groups individually. The end goal is to work out your triggers and get a personalised diet for you, so you can feel in control of your gut. For some tips on getting started, head on over here.
And that, my love, is the answer - the best diet for IBS is the diet that works for you.
THE BEST DIET FOR IBS - SUMMARY
IBS is so individual and the best diet for YOUR IBS will be different from the best diet for someone else. Don't compare!
What helps someone else's IBS won't necessarily help yours
So many factors influence how food affects you & whether it causes symptoms
The best approach is to test foods and see how they affect YOUR body
The low FODMAP Diet is a structured way of doing that, if the above seems too overwhelming
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this! Any questions? Let me know in the comments below!