If you are one of the 45 million Americans who suffers from the abdominal pain and gas caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’ll be glad to read this news. Researchers at Australia’s Monash University have developed a diet protocol that helps improve symptoms in about 70 percent of IBS patients. For a hard-to-treat condition, that’s a welcome relief.
Scientists have isolated four types of poorly absorbed, fermentable carbohydrates known as FODMAPs, which may be behind IBS sufferers’ symptoms. The good news? If you have IBS, you can work with a dietitian to figure out which FODMAPS trigger your symptoms, and with some dietary changes, you can begin to feel a whole lot better.
FODMAP stands for:
●Oligosaccharides (carbs found in wheat, rye, beans and some vegetables).
●Disaccharides (lactose found in milk).
●Monosaccharides (fructose found in honey, high-fructose corn syrup and some fruits).●
●Polyols (found in some vegetables and fruits; sugar alcohols used as artificial sweeteners).
Most carbohydrates are easily broken down and absorbed through your cells. If you have IBS, some of these FODMAP carbs aren’t well-digested or absorbed. Instead, high FODMAP foods can draw water into the intestines, making you feel bloated and crampy. If they hang around in your gut, they begin to ferment and cause bubbly gas, which leads to further bloating, pain and flatulence. (Watch this video).
If you have IBS, find a dietitian who specializes in the FODMAP diet. Together, you will start a treatment plan that involves the strict elimination of high FODMAP foods for six to eight weeks, followed by gradual reintroduction of individual FODMAPs to see which cause your symptoms and what amount you can comfortably tolerate.
“I am careful to tell my patients that the low FODMAP diet is a short-term learning diet to help identify their dietary triggers” says dietitian Kate Scarlata, a FODMAP and IBS expert.
You’ll notice that FODMAPS are found in nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. So, the point of the low FODMAP diet is not to avoid all of these nutrient-dense foods forever. The purpose is to figure out which FODMAPS affect your gut so you can personalize your diet and feel better.
“Most patients will identify five to 10 trigger foods on average,” Scarlata says. “Some patients learn that they have no one specific trigger food, but rather they exacerbate their IBS symptoms when they consume too many FODMAP-containing foods at one meal.”
Low-FODMAP is not meant as a long-term diet since it’s very restrictive and may have negative effects on the healthy probiotics in your gut. And since tolerance to FODMAPs can change over time, Scarlata encourages patients to reintroduce the trigger foods again in a few months to assess their current tolerances.
Since the low-FODMAP diet phase has many nuances, it’s best managed by a dietitian who can ensure you are meeting nutrient needs. Monash University has created helpful lists of high- and low-FODMAP foods, and an app that you can check while grocery shopping.
Can low-FODMAP diets be used to treat conditions other than IBS? A new study suggests it may help prevent the recurrence of diverticulitis, a painful inflammation of little pouches within the colon.
Plus, Scarlata says that if you have Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or celiac disease with overlapping IBS symptoms, a low-FODMAP diet may help you too.
But too often, people see the word “diet” and automatically link it to “weight loss.” To be clear, the FODMAP diet is NOT a weight-loss plan. It’s a learning diet for people with irritable bowel syndrome to identify and eliminate their trigger foods. So, please don’t cut out nutritious foods like vegetables, whole grains and beans in an effort to shed some pounds.
There may soon be dedicated grocery shelf space for “Low-FODMAP” foods, similar to the call-outs on celiac-friendly gluten-free products. Some experts suggest that the FODMAP market could grow to be bigger than the gluten-free market in America. That makes sense, since IBS affects about 15 percent of Americans, while celiac disease affects just 1 percent of the population.
Are specialty packaged foods necessary for this diet? While Scarlata encourages patients to prepare meals from foods in their natural state, she knows that’s not always possible.
“The reality is, we should all be able to whip up a quick and easy meal when our time is limited,” Scarlata says. “I am happy to see specialty foods hit the market for patients following the low FODMAP diet. Having a few safe staples such as an energy bar or a marinara sauce to top on a quick pasta dinner is a convenience we all should enjoy pain free, whether you have IBS or not.”
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”