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5 Foods to Avoid if You Have IBS

About 10 to 15 percent of Americans suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition that can cause bloating, gas, abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits. Avoiding these five foods may bring some relief.

Woman clutching her stomach

Digestive troubles are the butt of many jokes, but discomfort in the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s quite frustrating for the millions of Americans wrestling with these rather unpleasant symptoms.

About 10 to 15 percent of Americans suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition that can cause bloating, gas, abdominal pain and changes in bowel habits.

While there is no cure for IBS, Dr. Linda Lee, a gastroenterologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, says there are certain foods and medications that can make symptoms worse. Avoiding the following foods may bring some relief:

1. Milk

Milk and other foods that contain lactose, like cheese and ice cream, can cause gas and bloating in people who are lactose intolerant. “70 percent of adults worldwide do not produce large amounts of lactase, an intestinal enzyme that helps break down the sugar in milk,” says Lee. As a result of not absorbing lactose in the small intestine, the undigested lactose passes to the colon where bacteria ferment and cause gas.

2. Foods High in Fructose

While processed foods such as soft drinks and commercially prepared sweets are frequent culprits (a main ingredient is high fructose corn syrup), they are not the only source of blame (or bloat). 

It turns out some very healthy foods like apples, pears and dried fruits are high in the naturally occurring sugar fructose, which when ingested, can trigger some of the same side effects as undigested lactose.

“The best thing to do is to eat more fruits that don’t contain as much fructose, like berries, citrus and bananas,” says Lee.

3. Carbonated Beverages

Because the bubbles in beverages like soda and seltzer can produce a similar fizzy effect in the GI tract, Lee recommends sticking with water and lactose-free milk to quench your thirst. And before you think about adding juice to that list — remember that fruit-based drinks are frequently high in fructose!

4. Caffeine

Caffeine can increase diarrhea, another major symptom of IBS. High sources of caffeine include coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate and over the counter headache pills such as Excedrin.

5. Sugar-free Chewing Gums

Many sugar free gums are made with artificial sweeteners like sorbitol and xylitol, which have been shown to cause diarrhea. In addition, chewing gum leads to more air being swallowed, which can result in gassiness.

Other foods with the potential to generate digestive discomfort include beans and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, as well as nutritional and weight reduction supplements. Even though dairy products are the major culprits of discomfort for some IBS sufferers, yogurt proves to be an exception. \

“It’s generally OK because the bacteria in the yogurt breaks down the lactose, so it’s less likely to cause gassy symptoms,” says Lee. She also advises her patients to work on reducing stress, getting adequate sleep and minimizing the intake of highly refined processed foods.

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