Suffering from abdominal pain, stomach bloating, constipation, and flatulence are just some common symptoms that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) face. While every individual’s experience will vary, in many cases, these digestive symptoms are uncomfortable enough to affect one’s quality of life significantly.
As with most gastrointestinal-related problems, food is often a trigger which can worsen or improve symptoms. For IBS sufferers, controlling one’s intake of certain foods can vastly reduce symptoms like flatulence and bloated stomach. In particular, a diet known as the low-FODMAP diet has been found to be helpful in improving IBS-related symptoms.
FODMAPs are carbohydrate sources containing fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols, which make these foods exceptionally good at triggering bloating, gas, and stomach pain.
Numerous studies have associated a low-FODMAP diet with reduced symptoms, with some putting the likelihood of improvement at 75% for bloating and 81% for stomach pain. But before we look at how to implement this diet, you will need to determine if such a diet is suitable for you.
Is the low-FODMAP diet for you?
The low-FODMAP diet is for persons with IBS who are experiencing chronic gastroenterological symptoms. However, it is not recommended for everyone as FODMAP foods are still an important course of nutrients, in particular, prebiotics. In some cases, a low-FODMAP diet could do more harm than good.
A low-FODMAP diet should be considered if you have been diagnosed with IBS, experience ongoing digestive symptoms, and your symptoms have not improved by following other first-line dietary advice.
How do you begin a low-FODMAP diet?
Experts advise taking the 3-step approach to a low-FODMAP diet. But before starting, it is crucial to know what FODMAP foods are so you can plan out your meals and groceries.
Here are some of the most common FODMAP foods from each category:
- Oligosaccharides: Grains (e.g. wheat, rye), legumes (e.g. peas, beans), garlic and onions
- Disaccharides: Dairy products (e.g. milk, yoghurt, cheese)
- Monosaccharides: Some fruits (e.g. apple, peach, and mangoes), sweeteners (e.g. honey, agave nectar)
- Polyols: Some fruits (e.g. blackberries, cherry, lychee), low-calorie sweeteners (e.g. xylitol in sugar-free mints)
Stage 1: Restriction
The low-FODMAP diet begins with a full ban on all high-FODMAP foods. The purpose is to see if eliminating FODMAPs from your diet actually improves your symptoms.
For it to work, being disciplined by removing all high-FODMAP foods is necessary. This stage should last about 3-8 weeks, depending on when you observe relief from your digestive symptoms.
Stage 2: Reintroduction
In this stage, high-FODMAP foods are reintroduced systematically, in turn. This helps you identify which types of FODMAPs your body can tolerate, and how much of them your body can take before digestive symptoms strike again.
To do this systematically, you should allocate 3-day blocks to test out each category of FODMAP foods by adding small amounts to your diet. It will help to do this under the advice of a professional dietitian, or you could use a diet-tracking app to help you.
During this stage, take note of the FODMAP foods and the symptoms that arise when you consume them. This will be necessary information for you in stage 3.
Stage 3: Personalisation
This stage is where you customise your low-FODMAP diet according to your personal tolerances. From what you have gleaned in stage 2 about your body’s reaction to certain FODMAP foods, you will restrict the known trigger foods, while re-incorporating foods that do not cause you problems.
As stage 3 is meant to be the long-term norm, it is important to craft the right diet to maintain diet variety while reducing triggers. This will help you stick to the diet and offer a better quality of life with improved gut health.
What if the diet doesn’t work?
While the low-FODMAP diet has been shown to help many IBS sufferers improve their symptoms, it is not a cure. There are also people who do not find success even by following the diet closely.
If the low-FODMAP diet does not work for you, your doctor may recommend other therapies or medications to work in conjunction with, or in replacement of the low-FODMAP diet. Some of these IBS therapies include stress management, fibre supplements, or using medications to relieve symptoms. Do speak to your gastroenterology specialist for personalised recommendations.