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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Controlling Symptoms With Diet

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Many people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) find that eating prompts symptoms of abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea (or, sometimes, alternating periods of constipation and diarrhea), and bloating. Making adjustments to your diet can provide relief.

  • Limit or eliminate foods that may make diarrhea, gas, and bloating worse. These may include caffeine, alcohol, carbonated (fizzy) drinks, milk products, foods high in sugar, fatty foods, gas-producing foods (such as beans, cabbage, and broccoli), and the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and xylitol (often used in sugarless gum and sugarless candy).
  • To reduce constipation, add fiber to your diet, drink plenty of water, and get regular exercise.
  • Keep a daily diary of what you eat and whether you experience symptoms after eating.
  • Eat slowly and have meals in a quiet, relaxing environment. Don't skip meals.

More information on irritable bowel syndrome can be found in this topic:

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of the intestines that causes abdominal (belly) pain or discomfort. The pain may occur alone or along with constipation or diarrhea. Other symptoms include bloating, mucus in stools, or a sense that you have not completely emptied your bowels.

In irritable bowel syndrome, you have symptoms in the digestive tract but doctors can find no change in physical structure, such as inflammation or tumors.

It is not clear what causes irritable bowel syndrome, and the cause may be different for different people. Some ideas for what causes IBS include problems with the way signals are sent between the brain and the digestive tractClick here to see an illustration., problems digesting certain foods, and stress or anxiety. People with IBS may have unusually sensitive intestines or problems with the way the muscles of the intestines move.

Managing stress and changing your diet are the main treatments for the condition. Medicines may be used to treat severe symptoms that interrupt daily activities.

Test Your Knowledge

Irritable bowel syndrome occurs because of a blockage in the large intestine.


No particular foods cause everyone with IBS to have symptoms. Doctors do not advocate a particular diet to manage symptoms. But through trial and error, many people find that they feel better when they stop eating certain foods.

Many people find that their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms become worse after they eat. Sometimes certain foods make symptoms worse. Foods most commonly listed as causing symptoms include:

  • Cabbage.
  • Onions.
  • Peas and beans.
  • Hot spices.
  • Deep-fried and fried food.
  • Pizza.
  • Coffee.
  • Cream.
  • Smoked food.

Other types of food that can make IBS symptoms worse include:

  • "Resistant starch." Resistant starch is found in foods like cold or reheated potatoes, bread, and cereal. These resistant starches are not completely digested and can cause gas and bloating in the digestive tract.
  • A sugar found in milk, called lactose. About 1 out of 10 people with IBS also have lactose intolerance. Other people with IBS may have worse symptoms when they eat dairy. It's not a good idea to stop eating dairy altogether. Instead, try dairy products (like cheese and yogurt) that have less lactose and spread the amount of dairy you eat throughout the day.
  • A sugar found in sweet vegetables and fruit, called fructose. In people with IBS, fructose may not be digested all the way. This can cause diarrhea, gas, and bloating.
  • An artificial sweetener, called sorbitol. When eaten in large amounts, sorbitol can cause diarrhea even in people who don't have IBS. People who have IBS may be even more sensitive.
  • Caffeine. Caffeine can make the intestines move food along more quickly. But the most common digestive tract side effect of caffeine is acid reflux. In people with IBS, caffeine may not have much effect on diarrhea, gas, or bloating.

Test Your Knowledge

People with irritable bowel syndrome do not need to follow a special diet.


Although there is no particular diet to follow, you can manage your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by limiting or eliminating foods that may bring on symptoms, particularly diarrhea, gas, and bloating. Make sure you don't stop eating completely from any one food group without talking with a dietitian. You need to make sure you are still getting all the nutrients you need.

Tips for controlling symptoms

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Have regular meals. Take time to eat.
  • Don't skip meals or wait too long between meals.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water.
  • Limit coffee and tea to 3 cups a day.
  • Limit how much alcohol and carbonated ("fizzy") drinks you have.
  • It might help to limit the amount of high-fiber foods you eat, especially if you have a lot of gas and bloating. This especially includes whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.
  • Reduce the amount of "resistant starch" you eat. Resistant starch isn't digested well by your body and can cause gas and bloating. It is found in processed and recooked foods.
  • Limit your intake of fresh fruit to 3 portions a day.
  • If you have diarrhea, avoid sorbitol. Sorbitol is the artificial sweetener found in sugar-free chewing gum, drinks, and other sugar-free sweets.
  • If you have gas and bloating, eating soluble fiber (such as oats) may help.

Keeping a food diary

Some people who have IBS use a daily food diary to keep track of what they eat and whether they have any symptoms after eating certain foods. The diary also can be a good way to record what is going on in your life. Stress plays a role in IBS: If you are aware that particular stresses bring on symptoms, you can try to reduce those stresses.

Test Your Knowledge

Milk sugar (lactose) can trigger IBS symptoms.


Increasing fiber in the diet does not improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in everyone.


Be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning a plan to reduce or eliminate certain foods from your diet. It's fine to eliminate beverages such as alcohol or caffeine or items such as sugarless gum or candy, but be careful before removing entire food groups, such as dairy, vegetables, or fruits.

You may be able to eat some fruits and vegetables but not others. Your doctor may recommend that you consult a registered dietitian to help you plan a nutritious menu that helps reduce your symptoms.

If you would like more information on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the following resources are available:


American College of Gastroenterology
6400 Goldsboro Road
Suite 200
Bethesda, MD 20817
Phone: (301) 263-9000
Web Address:

The American College of Gastroenterology is an organization of digestive disease specialists. The website contains information about common gastrointestinal problems.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3570
Phone: 1-800-891-5389
Fax: (703) 738-4929
TDD: 1-866-569-1162 toll-free
Web Address:

This clearinghouse is a service of the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The clearinghouse answers questions; develops, reviews, and sends out publications; and coordinates information resources about digestive diseases. Publications produced by the clearinghouse are reviewed carefully for scientific accuracy, content, and readability.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerArvydas D. Vanagunas, MD - Gastroenterology
Last RevisedApril 26, 2012

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