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Can this IBS diet help your belly feel better?
Some people are turning to the popular low-FODMAP eating plan. Some say it’s a cure-all for problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But experts warn that it’s not for everyone. Here’s what you need to know, including what FODMAPs are in the first place.
If you're dealing with chronic gut problems, you're probably willing to try anything to fix it. It might feel like there's no rhyme or reason to which foods cause symptoms.
In your quest to feel better, you may have stumbled upon this strange word: "FODMAP." FODMAPs are certain carbs or sugars in foods that are not easily digested. Eating low-FODMAP foods may ease gas, bloating and other problems in the gut. But what is it? And how do you do it?
Here's a look at what low-FODMAP diets are and who they may help. Plus, we have tips to keep in mind before you get started.
What are FODMAPs and how do they impact gut health?
"FODMAP" is an acronym. It stands for "fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols." These are sugars found in certain foods that don’t get fully digested. They move slowly through the gut and soak up water. Then they're broken down by bacteria (germs) in the bowel.
Most people can eat high-FODMAP foods without a major problem. But some may be more sensitive. They may get uncomfortable gas, bloating, pain or diarrhea.
While FODMAPs may cause discomfort, they aren't harmful. "FODMAPs do not do any physical damage to the gut," says Mara Posner, DO. She's a gastroenterologist with Southwest Medical, part of OptumCare, in Las Vegas.
Who should try low-FODMAP foods (and who shouldn’t)?
The low-FODMAP plan was first created for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many people with IBS notice that their symptoms improve when they limit FODMAPs. One study found that 75% of IBS patients who followed a low-FODMAP plan had fewer gut problems.1
Research suggests that low-FODMAP diets may help with other gut problems, too. These include:
- Crohn's disease (an inflammatory disease of the gut)2
- Ulcerative colitis (an inflammatory disease of the large intestine or colon)3
- Celiac disease (a disease in which eating gluten causes your body to damage the small intestine)4
Eating low-FODMAP foods isn't a cure-all, though. Not everyone with gut problems feels better when they cut out FODMAPs. "Success is individualized. Some patients benefit, and some patients don't," Dr. Posner says. (Here are more ways to ease digestion.)
Cutting out FODMAPs also isn't for everyone. "A low-FODMAP diet is designed for a specific population," says Lauren Spradling, RD. She’s a Chicago-based wellness coach for Real Appeal with Rally, part of Optum. If FODMAPs don't cause problems, she says, there's no reason to skip them.
She adds that high-FODMAP foods are rich in helpful nutrients, like:
- Vitamins A, C and D5
Cutting out those foods can make it harder to get the nutrients you need. It may also harm the good germs in your gut.6
If you have an eating disorder, you should also stay away from low-FODMAP diets. (An eating disorder causes severe changes to how you eat. It can also change how you think about yourself, your body weight, body shape and food.) Food plans that put strict limits on what you eat may promote eating disorders.
Learn more about how to eat healthier.
High- and low-FODMAP foods
FODMAPs are found in a wide variety of foods, like:7
- All beans and legumes.
- Sugar alcohols. They’re often found in sugar-free foods and candies, such as gum.
- Honey, agave and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is found in many packaged foods and drinks.
- Dairy and products made from dairy. Soy milk and coconut milk are also high in FODMAPs. (Lactose-free dairy products are low in FODMAPs.)
- Wheat, barley, rye and any foods made with these grains. (Gluten-free grain products are low in FODMAPs.)
- Vegetables, like garlic, onions, broccoli, cabbage and beets.
- Fruits, like apples, avocados, pears, watermelon, cherries and peaches.
- Cashews and pistachios. (All other nuts and seeds are lower in FODMAPs.)
It's not always easy to tell which foods are high in FODMAPs and which aren't. So it's a good idea to keep a list of high- and low-FODMAP foods handy. A dietitian or GI specialist can give you a more complete list.
How to follow a low-FODMAP plan
When starting any special eating plan, it's best to work with a registered dietitian, says Spradling. They can help you:
- Know what foods to skip
- Create meal plans and find recipes
- Keep track of symptoms
- Make sure you're getting the nutrients you need from other foods
- Figure out when and how to add foods back into your meals
You should also talk with your doctor and possibly a gastroenterologist. "Together, they can create the best care plan for your needs," Spradling says. (Need a doctor? Search Optum providers near you.)
You don't need to stay on a low-FODMAP plan for a long time. You'll start by cutting out all high-FODMAP foods for about six weeks or so. Then you'll add the foods back in, one at a time. That can help you pinpoint which foods bother you, Spradling says.
Once you know your problem foods, you should stay away from them. But you can safely enjoy foods that don't cause problems. The goal is to add back as much variety as you can. You might also try to learn how much of a particular problem food you can handle.
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- Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. When the low FODMAP diet does not work. Published March 2017. Accessed August 16, 2022.
- Nutrients. Diet advice for Crohn’s disease: FODMAP and beyond. Published December 6, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2022.
- Trials. A randomized controlled trial investigating the effect of a diet low in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols on the intestinal microbiome and inflammation in patients with ulcerative colitis: Study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Published February 18, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2022.
- Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. A low FODMAP diet reduces symptoms in treated celiac patients with ongoing symptoms—a randomized controlled trial. Published January 17, 2022. Accessed August 16, 2022.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What is the low FODMAP diet? Published August 10, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2022.
- Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Controversies and recent developments of the low-FODMAP diet. January 13, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2022.
- MedlinePlus.gov. Low FODMAP diet. Last reviewed May 18, 2021. Accessed August 20, 2022.
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