Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) & Diet

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a very common condition that affects the digestive system. Symptoms vary from one person to another and can include:

  • stomach cramps, wind and/or bloating
  • diarrhoea or constipation, or both
  • lower abdominal pain, which may be accompanied by a change in bowel habit or stool appearance, and may ease after opening the bowels.
  • passing mucus
  • feeling the need to open the bowels even after having just been to the toilet
  • a feeling of urgency to go to the toilet
  • feeling that the symptoms are worse after eating

If it’s confirmed that you have IBS, your GP will talk to you about treatment options. This will include how to maintain a healthy balanced diet based on the particular symptoms you are experiencing.

It’s worth keeping a food and symptom diary to help you identify specific foods that trigger your symptoms. Then, if you find yourself having to avoid several different foods to control your symptoms, you can go through your diary with your GP.

For example, someone suffering with wind and bloating may benefit from limiting themselves to three portions of fruit and one small glass of fruit juice a day.

Cutting down on high-fibre foods (brown bread, brown rice, nuts and seeds) and avoiding the sweetener sorbitol can help reduce diarrhoea. Your pharmacist can advise on over-the-counter medicines that may also be of benefit.

Reducing fatty foods, which are hard to digest, can help anyone with diarrhoea, wind and bloating. This can be done by switching to low-fat spreads and using them sparingly, or changing to semi-skilled or skimmed milk, low fat yoghurts, fromage frais and crème fraiche.

Other food substitute options include using reduced fat mayonnaise, dressings and sauces.

For constipation, however, fibre may help but can cause gas and contractions, while making flatulence and diarrhoea worse. It can particularly be improved by eating foods that contain wholegrains and oats, along with maintaining a fluid intake of at least 8 cups of non-caffeinated drinks each day.

Soluble fibre stays in the gut longer than insoluble fibre, adding bulk and helping the colon work normally. This type of fibre can be found in dried/tinned beans, oats and barley, brown rice, peas and carrots, and dried fruits.

A food diary may indicate that a sufferer should avoid particular foods. This can range from broccoli, onions and cabbage, to cheese, chocolate and ice cream; alcohol and drinks containing caffeine (coffee, tea and some fizzy drinks).

General dietary advice found to be helpful for those living with IBS include:

  • Use fresh ingredients over convenience and ready-made foods
  • keep your intake of alcohol to two units or less per day
  • remove skin, pips and pith from fruits and vegetables
  • Healthier methods of cooking include grilling, baking, steaming and poaching, along with using less oil when frying
  • eat regular meals
  • do not skip meals or eat late at night
  • take your time when eating meals
  • sit down to eat and chew your food well
  • give your bowels time to adjust to any changes that you make

Other lifestyle changes include:

  • take regular exercise – for example, walking, cycling or swimming
  • make time to relax
  • keep a record of any changes you make to your diet or lifestyle, and how you are feeling

It’s key to remember that symptoms may not be caused by the food you have just eaten, but what you ate earlier that day or the day before.

IBS forum – talk with others

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence based articles are accredited by the PIF TICK, the only UK quality mark for trustworthy health information. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 2 May 2018
Next review: 2 May 2021