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5 “Healthy” Foods to Rethink When Trying to Get the Symptoms of IBS or IBD Under Control

Trying to understand which foods may be driving your symptoms of chronic intestinal cramps, bloating, and diarrhea when you’ve been suffering with these things a long time can be one of the most frustrating, if not confusing, endeavors.


There are a lot of dietary approaches out there, including the low FODMAP diet that the allopathic medical community loves to reference once a patient is diagnosed with IBS - and although these dietary approaches may be helpful in taming the symptoms, they are difficult to follow and take a lot of tracking and measure to stay on track. They also only provide minimal or partial relief in symptoms.


Most of the clients I have worked with who have tried a low FODMAP diet quickly failed for those two reasons. I would like to offer a simple, easy to follow starting point by highlighting five foods commonly touted as “healthy” that, if consumed regularly, may make it harder to get your IBS or IBD under control.


Number One: Ice Water


The critical aspect to the above beverage is “ice.” Most of us have heard at some point how important it is to drink water - enough water to stay well hydrated, and I am by no means countering this point. A good rule of thumb is to consume one half of your current body weight in fluid ounces of water each day (not to exceed 100 fluid ounces).


However, room temperature, or even warm water if you like, is best. Our culture loves ice water. It’s rare to go out to eat and not receive a glass of ice water on the table as a common courtesy before ordering. The problem with ice, especially for diarrhea sufferers is the cold factor.


I want you to imagine for a moment that your stomach and the rest of your digestive system is a cooking pot of rice boiling in water (this is actually an analogy used often in Chinese Medicine). Let’s say for a moment that folks who suffer from diarrhea have a bit of a weak flame under that pot compared to those who don’t suffer from diarrhea, and consequently, need to preserve and make the most of that flame to cook the rice thoroughly. Now imagine how difficult it would be to cook the rice with a weak flame if a bunch of ice water is repeatedly dumped on the pot. This is essentially what is happening at an energetic level when someone is repeatedly drinking really cold water. If possible, try to avoid the ice.


Number Two: Salads


Along with fruit, salads are probably the food most commonly listed by my clients in their intake paperwork under “top 3 healthy foods I consume.” In a fast-paced culture, they are an easy, quick and fairly tasty way for people to feel as though they are getting their veggies in. Salads, prepared properly, can be a powerhouse source of nutrition.


However, I am not a big fan of a huge bowl of raw greens and veggies for people struggling with IBS, especially if it is topped off with a huge splash of store-bought dressing. Raw veggies and greens, similar to the ice water example above, require a lot of digestive fire power to properly digest.


Additionally, the majority of health-giving vitamins in veggies are fat-soluble, meaning they are best absorbed and utilized by the body when consumed with a healthy fat, like cold-pressed virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil. Very few commercially made salad dressings use these types of high quality oils, which is why I always recommend making your own. If you suffer from chronic diarrhea, the best way to consume a salad is to lightly sauté or steam the veggies and greens and toss them with a healthy homemade dressing.


Number Three: Coffee


Coffee is one of those foods that is often portrayed in a negative light one minute and a positive light the next. I think the true story is a little of both. It is true that shade-grown, organic coffee can be a rich source of antioxidants and some research suggests it may offer protective factors against developing certain diseases.


However, it is high in caffeine and quite acidic and, when consumed regularly, can wreak havoc on our nervous systems and stomachs. It is also one of those highly addictive foods that can be extremely difficult to give up. Coffee also stimulates the digestive system to churn out a substance called bile, which helps us to digest the fat in the foods we consume, but is also stimulates peristalsis in the intestines (i.e. makes you feel like you need to have a bowel movement), which is not something a diarrhea sufferer needs more of!


So, if you are struggling with IBS-D or IBD symptoms and are a habitual coffee drinker, if possible, it is best to give up entirely. You will notice a huge difference over the course of the next couple of weeks. If it seems daunting to give up coffee entirely, I recommend trying to limit your intake to no more than 1-2 cups per day and slowly nursing the coffee over an hour or two, after consuming a solid breakfast containing a good amount of healthy protein and fat, which will buffer the effects of the caffeine on the gut.


Number Four: Yogurt


Many of my clients consider yogurt a healthy food because they think it contains probiotics, which most people believe help gut function. Probiotics do mostly help gut function, except in certain cases.


Without going down a rabbit hole, suffice it to say that research is now suggesting that upwards of 80% of people diagnosed with IBS may also have a condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO is a bit complex to explain in a nutshell, but suffice it to say that one of the hallmark characteristics of this condition is the presence of probiotic strains of bacteria living in the small intestine, instead of the colon, where they should live.


When these bacteria live in the small intestine, they feed off of and cause the food moving through to ferment, causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. These bacteria interfere with proper absorption of nutrition by the body. So, simply put, most folks with IBS would do well to avoid probiotic foods, at least until symptoms are under control.


The other problems with store-bought yogurt are 1) it may not necessarily contain therapeutic amounts of probiotics 2) is a dairy product (making it a possible food sensitivity for people with IBS), and 3) is high in sugar. Generally speaking, most dairy products fall high on the list of likely triggers for those who think they suffer from food sensitivities, and are best avoided by people suffering from either chronic diarrhea or constipation, until they can definitely rule out dairy as a trigger.


Number Five: Brown Rice


As of a few decades ago, it seems like the phrase “whole grain” became plastered over everything from loaves of bread to cereal boxes to bags of quinoa, and then was suddenly associated with the idea “healthy." Grains of all types can actually be quite health-giving, but when grown and prepared according to traditional methods that unlock their nutrition (I’ll save this for a future blog). Sadly, not many grain products found in American grocery stores today fulfill these standards.


As far as rice goes, interestingly, traditional cultures across the globe that regularly ate rice always ate white rice and always prepared it by soaking it for a period of time before cooking it, which unlocks the nutritional power of the rice. The idea of eating brown rice and associating it with a healthy diet was really born out of the macrobiotic movement of the 1970s. Although this movement had some healthy aims and certainly included eating plenty of veggies, overall, the diet is not a completely balanced approach to optimal nutrition.


In traditional Chinese medicine, white rice is actually considered a “chalky” medicinal food because when it is consumed alongside meat and vegetables, the energetic properties of white rice help the body to absorb the nutrition from these foods. If we think about the problem of diarrhea as an issue of food moving too quickly through the body, without proper time for absorption, consuming small amounts of white rice with meals makes a lot of good sense from a Chinese folk wisdom standpoint as it helps the body slow down digestion and maximize digestion.


For this reason, I often recommend my clients diagnosed with IBS-D or IBD trial consuming 1/3-1/2 cup of properly prepared white rice a couple times per day with good quality meat and veggies. You want to look for whole grain white rice and soak the rice overnight before preparing it the next day.


While this blog is not meant to be a complete roadmap to helping get diarrhea, IBS and IBD under control, this guidance has certainly been useful to me personally and my clients, and derives from using simple steps to help the body maximize digestion according to dietary wisdom of nutrition therapy and Chinese medicine.


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