Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Your Diet

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common medical disorder afflicting 10-20% of American adults, the majority being females. Formerly called “spastic colon”, IBS is characterized by a combination of varied symptoms that may include constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating and alteration in bowel habits. Fatigue and headaches can accompany IBS symptoms and are often exacerbated by certain foods, stress and/or other irritants. The abdominal pain or cramping can be a dull ache and, for some individuals, it can be intolerable and without relief. It can also lead to fatigue, irregular sleep habits, and in extreme cases, low-grade depression. There are three types of IBS. They include:

  • IBS with constipation. This comes with stomach pain and discomfort, bloating, abnormally delayed or infrequent bowel movement, or lumpy/hard stool.
  • IBS with diarrhea. This comes with stomach pain and discomfort, an urgent need to move your bowels, abnormally frequent bowel movements, or loose/watery stool or mucus in the stool.
  • IBS with alternating constipation and diarrhea.


  • Abdominal cramping
  • Gas
  • Constipation
  • Feeling of incomplete bowel movements
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating, abdominal distention
  • Alternating diarrhea & constipation
  • Mucus in the stool


Proper treatment for IBS will depend on the individual’s specific symptoms. Symptoms can often be lessened through diet, exercise and lifestyle changes. Evaluating one’s digestive history, stress level and diet is effective in determining an appropriate method of treatment. Physicians may also recommend prescription drugs in severe cases of constipation or diarrhea-prone IBS.

IBS and Diet

Certain dietary changes and adequate water consumption can help alleviate IBS symptoms.

IBS with constipation

Traditional therapies have included dietary fiber, especially for treatment of symptoms of constipation. Fiber decreases the transit time through the colon and decreases the pressure in the colon. If you suffer IBS with constipation, gradually introduce insoluble high-fiber foods into your diet.  Good sources of insoluble fiber include whole-grain bread and cereals, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Dried plums, prune juice, ground flaxseed, and water also help loosen bowels. High-fiber diets may cause gas and bloating, but these symptoms often go away within a few weeks. It is important to stay away from refined foods such as chips, cookies, and white rice as well as high fat foods.  These can slow the passage of stool.

IBS with diarrhea

In cases of diarrhea, it’s best to consume soluble, rather than insoluble, fiber as it has a longer transit-time leaving the digestive system. Good sources of the soluble fiber include oat bran, barley, the flesh of fruit (as opposed to the skin), and navy, pinto and lima beans.

Identifying Dietary Triggers

Identify trigger foods that aggravate IBS symptoms. Keep a symptom diary to help pinpoint the foods that lead to your IBS symptoms.  Below is a list of common IBS trigger foods and beverages.

  • Carbonated Drinks & Caffeine: Sodas, coffee, caffeinated as well as carbonated items can irritate the bowels and worsen diarrhea. Decaf coffee often has similar effects.
  • Dairy: Many individuals with IBS also suffer from lactose intolerance, which worsens symptoms. Choose reduced fat milk and milk products and eliminate high fat diary products.  If lactose intolerant, avoid milk and milk products all together. Yogurt is often an exception to the rule and provides beneficial ‘friendly’ bacteria to the gut.  Choose a natural or organic plain low-fat yogurt than does not contain artificial sweeteners.  Boost calcium intake by substituting fortified rice, oat or soy milks.  Goat’s milk is also known to be more easily digested.
  • Artificial Sweeteners & Fats: Sweeteners like sorbitol, malitol, and fructose used in diet sodas, sugarless gum, certain low-calorie products stimulate the bowels and can act as diuretics and/or exacerbate diarrhea.  Artificial fats such as Olestra causes digestion problems in many individuals, particularly IBS sufferers and should be avoided.
  • Gum chewing: Gum chewing can lead to swallowing air, which in turn may produce gas.
  • Fat & Fried Foods: Fat in any form (animal or vegetable) is a strong stimulus of colonic contractions after a meal, so fat intake should be decreased. That means most red meats, oils, butter, cream cheese, peanut butter, nuts, fried foods, avocados, coconut and cheese. Find substitutions for fat, such as using a nonstick pan and fat-free cooking spray. High-fat, red meat sources like beef, pork and lamb can be difficult to digest.  Choose more-easily digested lean protein sources such as chicken, turkey and fish. Fried foods augment symptoms and can cause painful cramping and bloating.
  • Chocolate, Candy, Sugary Foods – high sugar consumption can cause gas and bloating
  • Insoluble Fiber with Diarrhea – consuming too much insoluble fiber (commonly known as roughage, which passes through the body undigested) can be difficult and can be an irritant to those who suffer IBS with diarrhea.  Beans, legumes, wheat and oat bran, grains and certain raw fruits and vegetables can cause gas build-up and bloating.
  • Fiber for Constipation – Eating plenty of sources of dietary fiber including whole grains, high fiber cereal and crackers, vegetables and fruits often alleviates symptoms in individuals who have IBS with constipation. To increase fiber, try sprinkling a tablespoon of ground flax seeds on high-fiber cereals, in yogurt or salads.
  • Soy Products: Soy products including soybeans, tofu, items containing soy protein, etc can exacerbate bloating and gas (some individuals may be more sensitive than others).
  • Overeating, fast eating - Too much food and/or consuming food too fast in a single meal can set off IBS symptoms; opt for small, frequent meals and eat slowly, enjoy your meal.

Soothe Your Symptoms

  • Probiotics: Contain “friendly” bacteria that can stabilize the digestive tract.
  • Hydration: Adequate water intake throughout the day is important to maintain good digestive function.  Aim for 6-8 glasses a day.
  • Peppermint Tea: Peppermint acts as a calming agent to the intestinal system during spasms.
  • Relaxation Techniques: IBS is often triggered by stress, certain lifestyle changes may be beneficial.  Try practicing yoga or meditation, take time for yourself, read, write or do something you enjoy.