The problem with food
Foods are a bit like friends. Some of your friends you really love, they’re easy to be around and they never rile you up. Others are ok in small doses and preferably not when you’re stressed…
Demanding foods tend to be wheat, dairy, refined sugar, and sometimes beans, nuts, and sulphurous garlic and onions. You may be ok with small quantities when you are feeling calm and can eat peacefully. Once you start having more of them or try to tackle them on the run during a pressurised day, they can cause mayhem.
As several of these demanding foods are things that are prominent in the average Western diet, it can be tricky to know what to have instead. Fortunately, there are plenty of options. Read on…
Warm and cooked is best
Firstly, a trick. Anything that you eat warm and cooked will be easier to digest than that same food cold and raw. For example,when you are prone to IBS, stewed fruit is easier for your digestive system than raw fruit. If you have it warm rather than cold it is even better. The reason is that part of the work the digestive system has to do on the food is carried out by the cooking process. Warm food is also less demanding on your energy reserves. Consider how comforting warm soups and hot drinks are when you are ill, and be kind to your insides.
IBS FOOD TIP: Add spices to stewed fruit!
Cinnamon supports your blood sugar levels, and ginger is warming and stimulating to your circulation. They are both delicious too.
Fibre is one of the most commonly discussed food types in association with IBS. For some, a reduction in sources of dietary fibre is best. In other cases, you may find increasing fibre in your diet is more beneficial. It is important to consider the quantity and type of fibre you are eating. There are two types of fibre:
- Soluble fibre can be found in foods such as oats, barley, seeds, fruit, root vegetables and soy. This is fibre that is easily digested. It dissolves in water, softening and bulking the stool thus helping with symptoms of constipation. As soluble fibre absorbs water it can also be used if diarrhoea is present.
- Insoluble fibre can be found in wholegrains, cereals, the skin of fruit and vegetables, couscous and brown rice. The insoluble fibre in the food you eat takes more time to be broken down by the digestive system. It does not dissolve in water and can help prevent constipation.
If you find you are experiencing adverse reactions to fibre you may want to consider the FODMAPs within your diet. FODMAPs are specific classes of carbohydrate often found in many fruit, vegetables and legumes. Many FODMAP foods are rich in fibre and, if this is where the problem lies, you can consider FODMAP friendly foods to obtain your dietary fibre.
Prebiotics and probiotics
Your digestive system contains billions of bacteria. This is known as your microbiota – these organisms occur naturally and reside in particularly significant numbers in your large intestines. We now know that they play a very important part in keeping us healthy.
Generally we can categorise microbiota into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria. In order to maintain a healthy gut it is important to support the good bacteria and ensure bad bacteria don’t outweigh the beneficial effects of our friendly microbiota.
We can do this in two ways:
Support the environment in which the good bacteria flourish by incorporating prebiotics. Prebiotics are naturally occurring in many foods including onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke and raw chicory root. L+ lactic acid is also an excellent prebiotic and can be found in fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and Molkosan.
Introduce probiotics straight into your system. Probiotics are the live friendly bacteria themselves and can be taken to top up the numbers present in our gut. Probiotics occur naturally in certain fermented foods such as yoghurt and kefir. They can also be taken as supplements.
The types of microbiota present in the gut can vary greatly from one person to another. Research has suggested that people suffering from IBS may actually have different populations of bacteria in comparison to someone without bowel symptoms.
It is likely that ‘bad’ bacterial strains can take over the large bowel, giving rise to the undesirable symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea or constipation, commonly associated with IBS. Hence, maintaining the function of good gut bacteria is thought to be important if you have a functional gastrointestinal disorder such as IBS, apart from the benefits to general health.
Kassinen, A. et al (2007) The fecal microbiota of irritable bowel syndrome patients differs significantly from that of healthy subjects. Gastroenterology 133(1):24-33
A varied diet is less likely to cause problems due to overdosing on certain foods.
The tendency is to stick with a very limited range of foods due to fear that something different will spark off problems. This reduces your nutrient intake, so try some low-risk options for a change.
- Porridge can be very sustaining. If you like it, try soaking oatmeal overnight in water or rice milk (or oat milk or almond milk) and then cooking it up in the morning. This is quick and easy, and creates a breakfast that is more easily digested than porridge made with heavy duty jumbo oats. Add flavour and nutrient value with chopped dates, sultanas, and a sprinkling of nutmeg.
- If you love cereal for breakfast, try a rice or corn-based one (avoiding the types that are very high in refined sugar – try your local health store for better options), and warm up some rice milk or almond milk to top it with.
- Ever tried miso soup? Very nourishing and sustaining, and good for weight balance and for reducing wind.
- If your bowel tends to be sluggish, soak figs, dates and prunes in hot water, leave overnight, and then blend to warm up in the morning. Have a serving with soya, almond or coconut yoghurt on top if you like it.
IBS FOOD TIP: Keep fruit away from your other food!
If you like fruit for breakfast, have it on its own, preferably warm and cooked, and don’t eat anything else for an hour or so afterwards. This will reduce wind.
- Have an avocado (or half if it’s a large one) mashed with a drop of oil and a sprinkling of lemon juice. A pinch of freshly ground pink peppercorns can be nice too. You can mix the other half of the avocado with a little mayonnaise and use it for a rice cake topping later on in the day.
- A sweet potato baked in its jacket can be taken to work and reheated, or eaten as part of an evening meal. Fill it with roasted vegetables and a dab of coconut butter or a drizzle of olive or walnut oil. Sweet potatoes are faster to cook than ordinary potatoes and contain more nutrients.
- Soups are ideal, especially if full of chunky vegetables and eaten with oatcakes or rice cakes instead of bread. You can heat them and take them to work in a thermos if you don’t have the facilities for heating at work.
- Try a corn tortilla instead of a wheat-based one as a wrap, as this tends to be lighter and easier to digest. Fill it withroasted veg, humus, guacamole, or pâté.
- Try a spelt or wheat-free pasta instead of a wheat-based one. Rice noodles are extremely light and easy to digest, for example.
- Use quinoa or millet instead of white rice as a base for stews or curries. They are light, quick to cook, and if you cook quite a bit at once you can keep the rest for lunch the next day. They really don’t weigh you down.
- Swap meat for fish if your bowel is sluggish or you are finding yourself windy and bloated. Fish is lighter and more easily digested, as well as being quicker to cook.
- Don’t be scared of beans and pulses, so long as they are well cooked. It’s safest to use those that have been commercially produced (e.g. in tins), as they are ruthlessly cooked. Look for the versions that are sugar and salt-free.
IBS FOOD TIP: Don’t swap meat for heaps of cheese!
Cheese can cause all sorts of chaos if your gut is feeling sensitive.
This can be where it all goes horribly wrong, as you dive into the nearest packet of crisps or bundle of biscuits, because there’s nothing healthier to hand.
Planning is vital! Always have healthy snacks around you!
- Mini oatcakes are easy to carry with you
- Nak’d nibbles are now widely available and truly delicious
- Rice cakes and humus or pâté make a nourishing mini meal
- A home-made trail mix of your favourite nuts, seeds and dried fruit will sustain you over the afternoon hunger spot, and is unlikely to cause trouble if you chew it well
IBS FOOD TIP: Chewing makes the world of difference to any meal!
Not only will you be fuller faster, but your food is far less likely to rip your insides later on. And chewing is free! Get to it!
Don't let your drinks let you down
Too much caffeine can bring your guts to grief.
Caffeine triggers the production of adrenalin, which then switches off the digestive system. Nothing is easy to digest with the constant input of caffeine. Try the following:
- Green tea (good for your metabolism)
- White herbal tea (also metabolism boosting)
- Bambu Fruit and Grain Caffeine-Free Coffee (can be taken with milk for a soothing night time drink)
IBS FOOD TIP: Don’t drink with your meals!
Swelling the contents of your stomach with loads of liquid spells disaster for your digestion. Leave it at least half an hour after food before drinking.
Lastly, a tasty broth to try
Here’s a soothing, tasty broth to help heal up a troubled tummy. Full of useful minerals such as potassium, magnesium and iron, it is easy to digest. Don’t blend it too thoroughly, so that it has some ‘bite’ on which you can practise your chewing!
Ali’s Soothing & Healing Broth
125g carrot, grated
125g celery, chopped
50g raw spinach, shredded
1 litre vegetarian stock
1 tsp agave syrup
1 tbsp chives, chopped
Cooking time: 35 minutes
How to make:
1. Add carrot, celery and spinach to vegetarian stock.
2. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Add agave syrup and cook for another 5 minutes.
4. Blend and add chives as a garnish.
Liked this soup and want more delicious soup recipes packed with flavour and nutrients? From old classics to hearty soups with a twist, have a look at our soup page on the A.Vogel Food Hub. There are lots of tasty and healthy recipes for you to try.
Originally written on 24/03/2016, updated on 10/01/2019.