What foods can trigger IBS?

Dr Luke Powles
Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK
30 October 2018

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), making changes to your diet is one of the most important parts of managing your condition. But how do you know what foods to avoid? While this can vary from person to person, there are some food types that often turn out to be triggers.

In this video and article, I’ll tell you more about what these are, and how you can take steps to find out your own IBS triggers.

Potential IBS triggers

Eating a healthy diet in general can help with IBS symptoms. Working with your dietitian or doctor, you may also find it works to limit:

  • high-fibre foods such as wholemeal flour and bread, cereals high in bran and whole grains like brown rice – although check with your dietitian or doctor about fibre, as you may need to have more of it if you experience constipation
  • fresh fruit – having no more than three portions per day (with a portion being about 80g)
  • processed or re-cooked foods that contain ‘resistant starch’ – that’s a type of starch that’s not broken down in the small intestine
  • sorbitol – an artificial sweetener found in some sugar-free sweets and drinks, which may cause diarrhoea
  • tea and coffee – try cutting back to three or less cups of either per day
  • fizzy drinks – which are likely to make you more bloated

Part of managing your diet when you have IBS can be reducing your intake of high-FODMAP foods. These are carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by the small bowel, and pass into the large bowel where they are broken down by bacteria. This breaking-down process can cause bloating, wind, discomfort and other symptoms related to IBS. Examples of high-FODMAP foods include wheat, rye, onions and garlic.

Sticking to low-FODMAP foods could therefore help with IBS – but it’s really important to try this under the guidance of a dietitian or doctor. That’s because cutting out foods can sometimes lead to having a diet that isn’t nourishing enough. See our blog on the low-FODMAP diet and IBS to find out more.

Rob’s story: establishing your own trigger foods

While there are some foods that commonly trigger IBS symptoms, it’s important to establish what the triggers are for you specifically. Here’s Rob’s story about how he found out what food was troubling him.

“Through cutting out and reintroducing food, as well as a bit of luck, I have found out that one of my key triggers is onion in all its forms. It doesn’t matter whether it’s raw, cooked, small or large, on its own or in a sauce or ingredient. There are so many things with onion in!

“I have cut this completely out of my diet and have been three weeks without pain or a flare-up. Fingers crossed this is the main cause. I still have lots of experimenting to do with food and am sticking to the low-FODMAP diet as much as possible.”

Keeping a symptoms diary

This is a great way to work out what foods might be making your symptoms worse. Download and print our IBS symptoms diary (PDF 913Kb), and use it for two to four weeks before discussing what you’ve found with your dietitian or doctor.

IBS diary image

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Dr Luke Powles
Dr Luke Powles
Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK