Be kind to your system
If you have a sensitive gut, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to miss out. There are several things you can do to look after your digestive system and keep it on track, from eating more slowly or tweaking a recipe to keeping a food diary.
Good eating habits
Here are some good eating habits that may help :
- Eat more slowly. It takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it's full, so eating more slowly means you’re likely to eat less and so have less to digest.
- Chew your food. When you take time to chew your food properly, you not only slow down the eating process, but you help your digestive system by giving it smaller pieces of food to break down.
- Don’t gulp it down. When you gulp down food, you swallow air, which can lead to trapped wind and poor digestion.
- Eat smaller, lighter meals. Big, heavy meals take longer to digest and make your system work harder.
- Don’t eat late at night. Your digestive system is at its least efficient at the end of the day, so try to eat your last meal at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Everyone is different and our bodies can react differently at different times. What might trigger diarrhea for one person could be fine for another or even act as a calmative. Or you may notice something that didn’t trigger a reaction yesterday but seems to be causing problems today.
Saying that, here are some foods that can commonly lead to diarrhea :
- Alcohol. Your favourite wine or spirit might be an irritant for your stomach. But different drinks affect different people, so work out which ones disagree with you and steer away from those.
- Spicy foods. Recent studies show that rich and spicy foods, like Indian and Chinese food, may worsen abdominal pain for IBS sufferers.*
- Fried and fatty foods. These will increase the strength of your natural intestinal contractions as you digest and process the food, which can aggravate symptoms for diarrhea sufferers.**
- Fibre-rich foods. Some foods high in insoluble fibre, like bran and wheat, can be hard to digest and cause some people problems.* Check the back of your cereal pack to work out which types of fibre seem to best agree with you.
- Excess fruits or vegetables. For some people, eating too many prunes, kiwi fruit, beans, broccoli or cabbage can set off diarrhea.
- Dairy. Milk, cheese, cream and other dairy products are known to cause diarrhea for some people. Look for non-dairy alternatives like almond or soy milk.
- Coffee and tea. Caffeine has been identified as a trigger for many sufferers with digestive problems. Try to limit how much caffeine you drink and opt for herbal or green teas instead.*
- Sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners like sorbitol and fructose, which you’ll find in diet drinks and sweets, have been linked with causing diarrhea, in part because they’re poorly absorbed by the small intestine.*** Keep an eye out for these on the packaging and try to choose a natural alternative.
Remember, your symptoms might not be caused by the food you’ve just eaten, but by what you ate the day before. Or it may not be the food at all, but how quickly, how late or how much you ate.
How to avoid eating trigger foods
If you have diarrhea that might be caused by eating a certain food, you can try to identify the food by keeping a diary of what you eat every day and when you have the symptom.
Keep a food diary
- Get a notebook with space to write a page for each day.
- Write down absolutely everything you eat, including condiments, seasoning (if you can) and drinks.
- Write down your stress levels on the day. You might be surprised by their impact.
- Look out for patterns in ingredients. Pasta, pizza and sandwiches are different meals, but could all contain wheat.
- Start broad and then home in on ingredients. So, once you’re aware of your problem foods, try to work out which individual ingredients are to blame.
- Think long term. You might not notice any patterns at first, but they’ll emerge over time and you can raise them with your GP.
Break down problem meals
You might have worked out that eating pasta with tomato sauce gives you a bout of diarrhea, but you won’t necessarily know which ingredient is the problem. The way to find out is to try eating pasta without tomato sauce and vice versa. The same goes for all sorts of meals.
Do you have a food intolerance?
The most common food intolerances are to :
- Gluten – a protein found in many types of grain, including wheat, barley and oats
- Lactose – a sugar found in milk and other dairy products
Don’t assume that you’re intolerant to these food types ; just be aware of them.
If you think you have a food allergy or intolerance, see your doctor for advice.
Is fibre a problem for you ?
For some people, a diet high in fibre can cause diarrhea or worsen its effects. But be aware that there are two types of fibre:
Soluble fibre. This is found in most citrus fruits and in vegetables like potatoes and beans. It can help with both diarrhea and constipation, as it absorbs water so makes stools firmer if you have diarrhea.
Insoluble fibre. This is found in bran, wholegrain, rice and the skins of some fruit and vegetables. It can help with constipation, but can make IBS and frequent diarrhea symptoms worse. This doesn’t mean you should avoid insoluble fibre if you have diarrhea. Just try to keep an eye on what you eat and learn what works for you.