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Over 1 out of every 5 Americans suffers from either IBS or IBD – digestive conditions that can lead to gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and other symptoms. While neither condition is caused by diet, your food choices can significantly impact symptoms and overall well-being. An overview of IBS and IBD is provided below, followed by a discussion of the role of diet in managing these conditions.


What is IBS?

IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is the term used to describe a group of symptoms affecting the large intestine, or colon. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Unlike IBD (described below), IBS is considered a functional disorder rather than a disease. This means that while the colon is not functioning as it should, it is not damaged or diseased. IBS is also much more common than IBD, affecting 1 out of every 5 Americans. The cause of IBS is unknown.

While there is no “cure” for IBS, a number of medications and lifestyle changes have been shown to help improve symptoms. A doctor might prescribe laxatives to treat constipation, antispasmodics to reduce abdominal pain, or antidepressants to treat other symptoms. In many cases, lifestyle changes such as stress relief techniques and diet modifications (discussed below) can reduce or eliminate the need for medications. 


What is IBD?

IBD, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease, describes a group of disorders in which the small and/or large intestines become inflamed. Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease are the most common types of IBD. Ulcerative Colitis causes inflammation of the inner lining of the large intestine and rectum. Crohn’s Disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, but most often manifests as swelling deep in the lining of the ilium (the lower part of the small intestine). IBD affects about 1 out of every 200 people in the United States.

Although the exact cause of IBD is unknown, the most likely culprit is an immune reaction the body has against its own intestinal tissue. There is currently no medical cure for IBD, but several types of treatment are available to help control or alleviate symptoms. The major aim of any type of IBD treatment is reducing the intestinal inflammation that causes symptoms.

There are several major classifications of medications used to treat IBD, including corticosteroids, antibiotics, and immunomodulators, among others. While these medications have helped many people attain and/or maintain remission from disease symptoms, they can also have significant side-effects. Thus, the main focus of this post is on lifestyle changes (namely diet) for managing symptoms and improving overall well-being.


The Role of Diet

While IBS and IBD are not caused by diet, different foods can aggravate symptoms or promote healing. A healthy, balanced diet is especially important for people with these conditions, as nutrient absorption and immune system functioning may be compromised. The six most important diet-related considerations for IBS and IBD are:

  1. Inflammation
  2. Triggers
  3. Fiber
  4. Macro-nutrients
  5. Micro-nutrients
  6. Vitamins and minerals

Inflammation, triggers and fiber are discussed below. Macro- and micro-nutrients, vitamins, and minerals will be discussed in the second installment in this series.


Some foods cause inflammation in the body, some have anti-inflammatory effects, and others are relatively neutral. Avoiding inflammatory foods can help minimize the symptoms of IBS and IBD. Some of the more common inflammatory foods (and worst offenders) include:

  • Beef, pork and organ meats
  • Eggs (egg yolks in particular)
  • Dairy products (especially full-fat milk and cheese)
  • Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils
  • Refined sugars and carbohydrates (white sugar, white pasta, white bread, etc.)
  • Common allergens, including casein and gluten
  • Alcohol
  • Soda

Other foods can actually decrease inflammation in the body. A diet emphasizing anti-inflammatory foods is key to health and wellness for anyone, but especially for those of us with IBS or IBD. Some of the anti-inflammatory foods you may want to incorporate into your diet include:

  • Fresh fruit – especially blueberries and other berries
  • Fresh vegetables – especially broccoli and sweet potatoes
  • Healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocado, walnuts and other nuts and seeds
  • Whole soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh and edamame
  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa
  • Green and white tea


Through observation, trial and error and probably a bit of learning the hard way, you will likely find that certain foods are problematic for you while others are relatively easy to digest. There is no perfect diet for IBS and IBD sufferers, because a food that causes gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or even a flare-up for you may be perfectly suitable for someone else.

However, some foods are certainly much more difficult to digest than others, and are therefore more likely to be problematic for anyone. Certain foods are both difficult to digest and detrimental to health and well-being, and should be minimized or ideally eliminated from the diet. These foods include:

  • Meat – especially beef, lamb, poultry, and fatty fish (due to protein concentration and saturated fat content)
  • Dairy Products – milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt and eggs (due to lactose and saturated fat content)
  • Fried foods
  • Artificial sweeteners – especially sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and xylitol

Other foods may be difficult to digest for certain people, or at certain times (e.g. during a flare-up or on an empty stomach) but are health-promoting and should be incorporated into the diet when possible. These foods include:

  • Raw vegetables, especially the cruciferous family (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Citrus – due to high acidity

Cooked vegetables are generally easier to digest than raw vegetables, so you may find that lightly steaming or stir-frying them is enough to reduce or eliminate gas and bloating. Beans and legumes are often easier to digest if soaked before cooking, and certain types are easier to digest than others. Experiment with different types of beans, peas and lentils to see which ones work best with your system. Cooked red lentils are high in protein and fiber and are relatively easy to digest.

Spicy foods and gluten-containing grains including wheat, barley and rye can be quite problematic for some people (or at certain stages), but are easily digested by others. Because there is no definite health benefit or risk from these foods, they should be included in the diet as desired and tolerated.

Coffee, alcohol, solid chocolate and coconut milk are also common triggers for many people. A few tips related to these widely-enjoyed items: avoid drinking coffee or alcohol on an empty stomach to minimize GI distress, and drink in moderation; try using cocoa powder in recipes and smoothies for easier-to-digest chocolate flavor; and use light coconut milk in recipes and avoid high-fat coconut products like coconut ice cream.


Fiber can be a tricky issue for those of us with IBS or IBD. Getting enough fiber in your diet is key to maintaining regularity, reducing cholesterol, controlling blood sugar, and possibly reducing your long-term risk for colon cancer. But too much (or too much of the wrong type of) fiber can also cause gas, bloating and even diarrhea.

Fiber is typically classified into two categories – soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material that can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, and some starchy vegetables.

Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, and promotes the movement of material through your digestive system (i.e. helps maintain regularity). It also controls acidity in the intestines, which may help prevent colon cancer. Insoluble fiber is found in green leafy vegetables, fruit and vegetable skins, whole wheat, and nuts and seeds.

A low-fiber diet is typically recommended during an IBD flare-up or during bouts of diarrhea. However, it is important to re-establish a healthy and varied diet with adequate fiber intake. Although it may seem as though adhering to a bland, low-fiber diet would help manage symptoms, incorporating “whole foods” like leafy greens, cooked vegetables, a variety of fruits and whole grains, and lean protein sources will promote health, healing and regularity.

Concluding Thoughts

It is worth noting that animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy, are among the poorest choices for IBS and IBD sufferers. They often cause or contribute to inflammation in the body, are common trigger foods, and provide no fiber, which is beneficial for digestion and overall health. In contrast, many whole, plant-based foods are among the best choices. Fresh fruits and vegetables are key for controlling inflammation, and provide heart- and colon-healthy soluble and insoluble fiber.

The second installment in this series on IBS, IBD and Diet will discuss the role of macro- and micro-nutrients, vitamins and minerals in promoting health and well-being.

Image Credit: sk8geek/Flickr

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9 comments on “IBS, IBD and the Role of Diet”

Click to add comment
Helen Smith
1 Years Ago

God have been very kind to me, despite the hard times he made me go through but now I give him all the praise for relieving my mum of her stroke through the help of an herbal doctor by name Uwadia Amenifo. Helen Smith is my name, and we live in England. My mum was diagnosed of stroke eight months ago, and she was in so many pains as she can’t even walk, go to rest room, or move her body. She even has to excrete in her body most times. I am her only child, and I so much love my mum because my dad died when I was 4 years old. So I grew up in the hands of only my mum without fatherly care. It happened that when she was diagnosed of stroke by our family doctor her condition was still good by then, but in just one month after her diagnoses, her condition became very worst that the doctor then said her stroke is acute and no longer partial. And that it will only take God’s intervention for her to be well again and for her to be able to retain the full use of her brain. So her ailment continues until God intervened before God’s intervention, I have carried her to so many churches for prayers and have traveled very far to look for a cure for her. I Travelled to America to see some doctors if they can help even if its surgery they can carry out on her provided she don’t die, because I really needed her around me. It was in America an Endocrinologist by name Jill Marie Abelseth MD from Albany, NY told me about an herbal doctor who she knows of, that have successfully cured stroke/ human parasites. So she advised me to contact the herbalist, so I contacted him, and explained to him what my mum is going through, so he counseled us and asked few questions about my mum which I told him. So he prepared the herbs, and shipped it to me in England. I gave my mum the herbs just as he has instructed, and just exactly as he said that his herbs will totally cure my mum. His herbs really worked perfectly well, and cured my mum. As I write this testimony my mum is totally cured of her stroke and she has started her normal business as usual. So I want all here to help me thank Doctor Uwadia Amenifo for his great help in helping me cure my mum of her stroke with his herbal medicine. Please if you know of anyone who have stroke or who have one disease or the other and his/her doctor says there’s no cure to that disease please I want that person to contact doctor Uwadia Amenifo, and give him a try. His contacts are Email ([email protected]) his number is (+2349052015874), His website is http://druwadiaherbalhome.simplesite.com/ Thanks.

4 Years Ago

I have eaten a whole foods vegan no oil no sugar plant based diet for a year. Only whole grains, beans ,greens veggies fruit and small amounts of nuts seeds and avocado. I have never felt worse. My Ibs is terrible but I have persisted in my diet as I feel it is the healthiest. I find all cruciferous veggies, all beans, nuts, oats and the worst sweet potatoes and many more things things that set me off. I have abandoned this diet for 3 weeks now and have never felt better. No more ibs. I eat chicken, fish eggs with small amounts of steamed veggies and some brown rice. The problem was the fiber for me. Couldn't manage any kind of fiber so now that my diet is a low residue diet my tummy is at peace. Plant based diets are not the way to go if you have ibs and excessive runs to the bathroom. Wish I had quit this diet a long time ago. I feel bad to eat the animal proteins again but it is the best decision I have ever made. There really are no societies in history that have existed on a totally plant diet. Now each meal is either eggs, chicken or fish with small sides. Instead of going 6 times a day I finally am down to twice a day. I feel so much better.

12 Oct 2016

Somebody is being sponsored by the meat and egg industry. LOL.

08 Mar 2017

Same for me.The so called healthiest of foods give me the worst pain to the point of lying on the floor in massive pain almost blacking out.I know every vegan would like the rest of the world follow their diet but unless they are ok with someone feeling awful and beaing unhealthy on vegan/vegetarian diet that just ain\'t possible for some of us.Following a FODMAP diet until your symptoms subside works best and then limiting those ingredients to just a few at a time and sticking to mostly fresh unprocessed gluten free dairy free lean free range chicken works best for my digestion.

5 Years Ago

Thanks Jennifer Valentine for sharing Insightful healthy informative article. Last month I have suffered with irritable bowel syndrome (ibs) with constipated really it’s extremely unlikely to say those days was hell for me huge pain in bowel I have prayed to god at that time no one should suffer like me those days was horrible for me I have consult a doctor he suggest me to intake soluble fiber minimum 25-30 grams per day I have followed the diet and exercise which doctor suggested me within 10 the problem was cleared for me. Now a day’s most of them people are not aware of diet and exercise. And addicted to junk food I hope this article will useful to every reader. Once again thanks for informative article.

5 Years Ago

About a year after becoming vegan, and a few months after switching to GF, my IBS actually came back. I must be the exception and not the rule.

6 Years Ago

These are really excellent tips for thinking about ways to manage a chronic condition through dietary modification. For anti-inflammatories, might I also add that certain spices such as turmeric which contains the active ingredient curcumin are known to be excellent at reducing inflammation. In fact, here is a Whole Foods article on curcumin and research regarding its power to reduce IBD in mouse models of the disease. True, the mouse model is an imperfect representation of the human disease but its excellent research.

noel glass
6 Years Ago

Jennifer, thank you for a most imformative article. I will be posting a link onto my site as it is certainly well worth a read.

Jennifer Valentine: Editorial Manager, OneGreenPlanet.Org
31 Mar 2012

Thanks Noel, glad you enjoyed it!

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