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What Foods Trigger IBS Attacks?

Published date: February 13, 2023 | Modified date:
by Dr Stephen Wangen

Everyone who gets IBS attacks wants to know what foods trigger IBS attacks. And if this happens to you, then you know that when you eat is when you usually start to have a problem. So you may even avoid eating.

Here’s what we’re going to cover

  1. Foods That Trigger IBS Attacks
  2. What To Eat During An IBS Flare Up?
  3. The Low FODMAP Diet for an IBS Flare Up
  4. The Best Diet For An IBS Flare Up
  5. Foods To Help An IBS Flare Up
  6. Preventing IBS Attacks From Ever Happening Again

Foods That Trigger IBS Attacks

If you’ve already looked up anything on the subject of foods that trigger IBS attacks, then you know the foods that most people tell you to avoid – greasy foods, alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, and you’ve probably heard about high FODMAP foods too. If not, no worries. We’ll cover them all here.

But if you’re like most people, avoiding those things hasn’t stopped your IBS attacks.  It may have helped some, but it probably wasn’t the answer that you really wanted. And there is a very good reason for that.

Once your digestive system is compromised and you have IBS, it becomes clear that there are certain foods that are usually more difficult to digest than others. These are the foods that are more likely to trigger an IBS attack. These are greasy foods, alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, heavy proteins, raw foods, and high fodmap foods.

So if you cut them out, you might feel a little better. But those foods weren’t the things that caused your IBS in the first place. They are only irritating an already irritated digestive tract. And avoiding them may help, but it won’t solve your IBS.

But why are those foods so problematic? Let’s examine raw foods like salads and nuts, first. These foods require a lot of energy to break down. You have to chew them really well, and even then they require a lot more work to digest than processed food. That’s good when you want to eat healthy. It’s bad when you have a compromised digestive system.

The same is true for greasy foods, and for big proteins like read meat. They require more work to digest and absorb too. Not a big deal if your digestion is good, but wreaks havoc if you have IBS.

Processed foods and soft foods like soups and smoothies are super easy to digest. All of that processing and/or cooking has basically already broken down those foods for you. All you have to do is chew them and they fall apart and then you can swallow them. That is very easy on your digestive system.

And alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods are always hard on your digestive tract. But when your digestion is working well, it can deal with those. When it’s not working well, it can’t.

What To Eat During An IBS Flare Up?

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to try to minimize the flare up by doing what is statistically helpful, meaning that some people feel better when they do it. You can do that. We will discuss it and how to do it. And you will probably feel better. But it will only be temporary, and it won’t cure your problem.

The other way to figure out what foods to eat during an IBS attack is to find out exactly what is causing your IBS in the first place and then stop having flare-ups altogether. The latter option may sound impossible. It’s not, and we’ll talk about both options.

We’ll start with things to eat or not eat that can help with an IBS flare up

The Low FODMAP Diet for an IBS Flare Up

The latest fad diet for IBS (and there have been many before it and will be many after it, that’s why I call it a fad) is the low FODMAP diet. Just because it’s a fad doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try it. But know that it only helps a small percentage of people.

FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates.  This is a really fancy way of saying that there are different types of carbohydrate molecules in foods, some of which you may have a problem digesting. Some foods have more of these molecules than others.

The foods that you need to avoid during a low FODMAP diet include the following:

  • Wheat (that includes pasta)
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Soft cheeses
  • Soy milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Beans
  • Anything with high fructose corn syrup in it

The foods that you CAN eat, that are low in FODMAPs, include the following:

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Turkey
  • Fish
  • Egg
  • Tofu
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Potato
  • Quinoa
  • Sourdough bread
  • Bananas (unripe)
  • Oranges
  • Grapes
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Cucumber
  • Spinach
  • Tomato
  • Lactose free ice cream
  • Wine
  • Beer
  • Spirits
  • Coffee
  • Sucrose sweetened things

These lists aren’t conclusive, but they are a really good start and hit most of the highlights of the low FODMAP diet.

The Best Diet For An IBS Flare Up

In our experience the best way to approach any discussion of foods that trigger an IBS attack is not about focusing on whether or not they are high or low FODMAP foods, it’s to divide them into foods that are commonly the cause of digestive problems and foods that are more difficult to digest when you have an IBS flare up.

The goal is to give your digestive system a mini vacation, so that it can relax and heal. You don’t want to challenge it with anything that will cause it to work hard.

You can go easy on your digestive track by keeping any food intake very simple and soft. You want everything you eat to either be well cooked and/or already broken down. For example, all of your food should be in the form of a smoothie or a soup.  No digestive work required.

Don’t eat any of the following:

  • Raw foods (like salads)
  • Fruits with skins (like apples)
  • Nuts
  • Fatty/greasy foods
  • Steak
  • Whole grains
  • Brown rice

Also don’t eat:

  • Sugar
  • Caffeine
  • Spicy food
  • Alcohol

All of these things will irritate an already irritated digestive tract.

And finally, don’t eat:

  • Dairy
  • Gluten

These are two of the most common causes of digestive problems.

Foods To Help An IBS Flare Up

Up to this point we’ve been primarily discussing foods to avoid that can trigger an IBS flare up, not foods to eat. So here we’ll switch gears and focus on foods to eat during an IBS attack.

What you CAN eat is virtually everything else not in our list above, as long as it is well cooked, cut into small pieces, or even better, made into a soup or a smoothie to make it super easy to digest.

You want to eat foods that are basically already broken down, so that your digestive system can go on that well deserved vacation that it needs in order to recover from the stress it’s been under.

DO eat:

  • Smoothies (But not sweet ones. Go easy on the fruit too.)
  • Soups
  • Cooked vegetables (almost to the point of being overcooked)
  • Mashed potatoes (no dairy)
  • White rice
  • Fish (grilled or baked and cut into nice small pieces)
  • Chicken (baked and cut into nice small pieces)

And chew everything (that isn’t a soup or smoothie) really well!  You’ve heard the old adage to “chew your food.”  This is why! It will reduce the amount of work that the rest of your digestive system has to do.

Do those things for a couple of days or so and there is a good chance that you’ll start to feel better soon after an IBS attack.

Preventing IBS Attacks From Ever Happening Again

The ideal goal is to prevent IBS attacks from occurring, so that you don’t have to suffer through them and worry about the super restrictive diets we just went over. That is certainly our goal for all of our patients at the IBS Treatment Center.

They first key to accomplishing this is to see an IBS specialist. Most people confuse this person with a gastroenterologist, but they are two very different specialties. An IBS specialist only treats IBS.  They are very rare, but they do exist. Gastroenterologists do a whole lot of other things, but they don’t go very deep into IBS.

Up till now everything that we’ve talked about is very generic and broad stroke. It may help you, but it’s probably not going to cure your problem.  An IBS specialist can help you figure out exactly what is weakening your digestive system and what is triggering your IBS attacks. And they can fine tune all of the above dietary advice into a much more specific and dialed in treatment plan.

That’s the difference between reading about IBS online and getting treatments customized to your body. There are some things that can’t be solved by reading about them online or watching videos. This is unfortunately one of them. But I hope that what I’ve covered here helps you feel at least somewhat better sooner rather than later.

Can you tell what foods trigger your IBS?