Of all the reported triggers for IBS attacks, perhaps the most common is food & drink. What you eat can make a huge difference to your digestive system, especially if you’re experiencing IBS symptoms.

Unfortunately, because IBS is such a personal condition, trigger-foods can vary enormously from person to person, so it’s hard to draw up a definitive list of ‘food and drink to avoid’. Something that might make you sprint for the toilet might have no effect at all on a fellow IBS sufferer, or even act as a calmative.

Below, we’ve provided a list of general dietary advice and a list of some of the foods and drinks most commonly associated with IBS attacks, but if you really want to figure out what sets you off, keep a record of everything you eat and drink for a continuous period of time.

General dietary tips

  • Cut down on alcohol, which can be a stomach irritant. Some people find beer (for example) worse than other drinks, so if you don’t want to cut out the booze altogether, try wine or other forms of alcohol.
  • Watch out for spicy foods – recent studies have shown spicy food may contribute to abdominal pain for IBS sufferers, most likely as a reaction to a compound found in chilli peppers.
  • Fried foods and fatty foods with a high fat content will increase the strength of the intestinal contractions triggered naturally by the body, which can aggravate symptoms for those that suffer from diarrhoea.
  • Cut down on sugar and salt - When sugar is absorbed too rapidly into the blood stream due to excessive sugar intake, the frequency of rhythmic contractions in the intestines can be decreased
  • Some fibre-rich foods that your body finds hard to digest, like bran, can cause problems in some people, so pay attention to the back of your cereal box.
  • Limit your tea and coffee intake. Caffeine has been identified as a trigger in many IBS sufferers.
  • If you’re experiencing diarrhoea, try cutting out Sorbitol, an artificial sweetener often used in diet sodas and sweets that can also act as a laxative.
  • Drink plenty of water – aim for at least eight glasses a day to help keep your digestive system moving and loosen constipated stools.
  • Large meals can often trigger IBS as they put more of a strain on your digestive system, so try grazing throughout the day, or have five small meals instead of three large ones.
  • Eat plenty of soluble fibre, as this will help your digestion work more smoothly (see our article on Fibre for more information, as there is some debate on the role of fibre in IBS).
  • Try to steer clear of foods containing MSG (monosodium glutamate, a food additive often used as a flavour enhancer).
  • Try probiotics. They contain live bacteria that can help the balance of microflora in your digestive system

Foods to watch out for

Please note that this is NOT a list of foods you should avoid. It is a list of foods that have been known to make some IBS sufferers feel worse. Cutting some of them out may or may not affect your symptoms. If you think that an individual food may be causing your symptoms, speak to your doctor before eliminating that food completely.

  • Oily foods
  • Pasta – dried pasta and ready meals containing pasta can cause wind and bloating. Try fresh pasta instead
  • Bread
  • Cereals (especially bran) contain starches that are not completely digested by the body and can ferment in the bowel and produce gas.
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Onions
  • Pastries
  • Red meat, especially beef and processed meats.
  • Dairy products (if cutting out dairy stops your symptoms, you may be lactose intolerant and not have IBS at all. See your doctor for advice.).
  • Tea & Coffee – try restricting tea and coffee to three cups per day
  • Fizzy drinks (especially those containing caffeine)
  • Beer, wine & spirits
  • Chocolate
  • Sorbitol – a sugar substitute present in sugar-free confectionary and gum and a natural laxative know to sometimes trigger bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea in excessive amounts (even in non-IBS sufferers).
  • FODMAPs – The FODMAP diet avoids all foods containing highly fermentable but poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates and polyols. Click here to find out more.

Foods that might help

Some sufferers report certain kinds of food reduce their symptoms, but it’s important to bear in mind that some foods appear on both of our lists! That’s why it’s so important to keep a food diary to find out what works, and doesn’t work, for you.

  • Potatoes – watch out for sweet potatoes, which may be problematic for some people due to a type of sugar, polyol (mannitol), that is poorly absorbed in many people suffering from IBS
  • Salads
  • Bananas and other non-citrus fruits – limit fresh fruit to three portions (80g) per day. One portion could be half a grapefruit, or one apple. If you suffer from diarrhoea avoid skin, pips and pith on fruit.
  • Green vegetables
  • Fish – the essential fatty acids (Omega 3) found in fish oil are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties and may prove beneficial to IBS sufferers (move up – point on Omega 3)
  • Rice
  • Brown bread
  • Yoghurt – look for those listed as containing live cultures or probiotic
  • Cereals
  • Apricots, prunes and other dried fruit
  • linseed oil (up to one tablespoon a day) has been reported by some help with symptoms of wind and bloating
  • Oats are good sources of soluble fibre and can help if you suffer from symptoms of wind or bloating, they may also help with constipation

Remember that symptoms may not be caused by the food you have just eaten, but what you ate the day before – keeping a food diary makes these instances easier to identify. Take things slowly when introducing changes to your diet, as it will take time for your body to adjust. Increasing your fibre intake, for example, should be done gradually as a sudden change could make your symptoms worse: even a 1% reduction in the efficiency of fluid absorption can lead to a bout of diarrhoea.

The process may take time, but numerous IBS sufferers have found that by watching what they eat they can learn how their body responds to certain foods and manage their IBS symptoms.