Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population is affected by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), yet the cause of the common digestive disorder is unknown. Lifestyle-related stressors, poor diet and overeating often exacerbate symptoms, but the opposite also is true: Adopting a whole foods-based, happy belly diet filled with foods that promote digestive comfort is a delicious prescription for digestive ease.
IBS is considered a “functional disorder,” because it refers to a set of symptoms rather than a specific disease. It often causes significant discomfort, though it is not considered a serious health threat. IBS is not related to inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Typical symptoms include abdominal bloating and soreness, gas and alternating diarrhea and constipation.
Managing gut disorders through diet is complementary to medical treatment, and involves learning new ways to eat. Promoting gut health through a whole-foods diet includes avoiding foods that over-stimulate or irritate the colon, and instead eating foods that soothe and regulate. This relieves and prevents both diarrhea and constipation, as well pain, gas and bloating. Eating for digestive health is accomplished through:
• Limiting the amount of dietary fat.
• Frequent small meals and snacks instead of large meals.
• Limiting caffeine, carbonated beverages and alcohol, since all act as powerful digestive tract stimulants.
• If you smoke, it is important to avoid cigarettes, as tobacco causes digestive problems.
Balance Your Fat Consumption
The most difficult foods for the body to digest are fats and animal products. Not all fats should be avoided, since our bodies need fats to function. The “essential” unsaturated fatty acids known as omega-3 and omega-6 appear to be helpful in ensuring optimal health. Remember that these healthier fats, specifically the mono- and polyunsaturated types, are often liquid at room temperature. By comparison, the less healthy trans and saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.
Optimal health comes from balancing your consumption of essential fatty acids: Cut back on processed foods while increasing your intake of foods high in omega-3, such as oily fish or fish oil supplements, walnuts, flax seeds and omega-3-fortified eggs. Meanwhile, decrease your intake of saturated fats from red meat and dairy products, and you have a nutrition prescription for optimal health!
Is That Soluble or Insoluble Fiber?
Balancing fiber intake is also helpful to digestive health. The two types of fiber are soluble fiber, which can be dissolved in water, and insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve. Insoluble fiber is ”rough”; it passes intact through the intestinal tract and can cause increased frequency, water content and looseness of bowel movements. Insoluble fiber may trigger painful attacks in IBS sufferers, with severe cramping that can result in diarrhea or constipation.
Soluble fiber, in contrast, is ”smooth” and soothing to the digestive tract. Acting as a digestive regulator, it stabilizes the intestinal contractions triggered by eating and normalizes bowel function. The water-soluble compounds in this type of fiber dissolve but are not digested. This allows the absorption of excess liquid in the colon, providing the appropriate stool consistency and bulk. Easier, balanced transit time matched with appropriate bowel consistency relieves constipation.
Whole foods that are naturally high in soluble fiber include:
• Brown and white rice
• Apple sauce
• Oat bran
Nuts, beans and lentils are also good sources of soluble fiber but should be treated with care, as nuts are high in fat and both lentils and beans contain some insoluble fiber.
Eating a whole-foods diet with a wide variety of insoluble fiber foods in small amounts helps ease digestive issues. Raw fruits, raw vegetables, raw greens and seeds (including those from fresh fruits or vegetables) are high in insoluble fiber. Some people may not tolerate fruits and vegetables with tough skins or hulls such as blueberries, cherries, apples, grapes, peas, corn, bell peppers or celery. Peeling and cooking tough-skinned fruits and vegetables aids digestion and optimizes nutrition from these powerhouse nutrition choices. Check with your health care provider for your specific tolerances.
Probiotics Promote Optimal Digestion
Probiotic supplements may be helpful, too. Probiotics encourage the growth and proliferation of healthy gut bacteria, which promote optimal digestion. See your health care provider for suggestions regarding probiotic supplements, since different bacterial strains appear helpful for IBS.
A recent scientific study found that a probiotic supplement containing strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter effectively reduced abdominal bloating and distension in people with IBS.
Healthy Turkey Salad
This turkey salad is a great way to promote digestive health through whole foods containing both pre- and probiotic food sources and healthful fiber. Enjoy!
Ingredients (serves one):
4 cups mixed greens
1/2 medium tomato, skinned and sliced
3 ounces organic turkey breast, sliced
1/4 cup crimini mushrooms, sliced
3-1/2 tablespoons sunflower seeds, toasted
• 2/3 cup canned organic kidney beans
Combine all ingredients and top with Blue Cheese Dressing.
Blue Cheese Dressing
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup low-fat organic yogurt
1 cup low-fat organic buttermilk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Directions: Place all ingredients except blue cheese in blender and blend until smooth. Add blue cheese and pulse 2 to 3 times. Keep in sealed container in refrigerator for up to two weeks. Top salad with 1 tablespoon dressing, and toss well.
Nutrition information (salad and 1 tablespoon dressing): Calories: 480; Protein: 49 g, Folate; 335 mcg; Vitamin A: 6600 IU; Vitamin C: 45 mg; Vitamin E: 12 mg, Calcium 250 mg, fiber 25 g.