Which Diet Is Best for Your Digestive Health?
When you hear the word ‘diet’, you may think mostly of your waistline after the holidays, or of the latest fad diet that’s doing the rounds on Facebook and all the glossy magazines. But have you ever considered dieting to improve the health of your gut?
That’s right – there are diets designed to counteract uncomfortable symptoms, such as:
Yes, the food you eat can make a huge difference to the way you feel! Think of your food as a form of medicine that can help heal your gut.
The best diet for gut health, depending on your needs, can be the Mediterranean diet, the paleo diet, the specific carbohydrate diet, the elimination diet, or the low-FODMAP diet. But which is the best fit for you?
Food choices are becoming more prevalent in the conversations I am having with my patients relative to how to improve their health. As a digestive health specialist in Plano, TX, I wanted to share some insight into these different dietary options. My hope is to get people thinking about food as an integral part of their health.
What Is the Best Diet for Digestive Problems?
These diets are recommended as a way to both aid your digestion and improve your overall health. If you’re struggling with occasional symptoms of bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, one of these diets may be a good fit for you.
The Mediterranean Diet
Why: This diet is known as the Mediterranean diet because it emulates the traditional diet of southern Europeans, particularly in Spain, Italy, and Greece.
What: The diet focuses on primarily plant-based foods, such as –
- Whole grains
- Healthy fats from oily fish and olive oil
Dairy and meat are eaten in moderation, wine is drunk in moderation, while heavily processed food is to be avoided. Meals can be livened up with herbs and spices.
Pros: In terms of digestion, cutting down on processed food and eating real food makes a huge difference to the amount of fiber in your diet, which aids the passing of stools. Eating less sugar reduces the level of inflammation in your stomach and gut and improves the composition of your gut microbiome. The Mediterranean diet is also beneficial in managing diabetes, reducing risk of heart disease, and protecting against cancer.
Cons: The Mediterranean diet can involve a lot of preparation of food – not ideal if you have a busy lifestyle. While wine is allowed, you must be careful not to overindulge, as it can affect your gut.
The Paleolithic Diet
Why: The paleolithic (or paleo) diet is based on the argument that man isn't supposed to eat so much sugar or processed food, or lead such a sedentary lifestyle, and the best way for you to look after your body is to emulate the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
What: To follow the Paleo Diet you need to cut out processed sugary foods and concentrate on eating organic fruits, veggies, lean protein, nuts, and seeds. Eggs and olive oil can be eaten in moderation, but you should avoid dairy, legumes, cereals and grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes. A consistent exercise regime is also crucial.
Pros: The paleo diet encourages you to eat a lot more fiber and drink water – this combination aids digestion, and can ease symptoms such as constipation and bloating. Much like with the Mediterranean diet, avoidance of processed sugar can help reduce inflammation in the gut and improve your gut biome, along with reducing risk of diabetes and certain cancers.
Cons: Following the paleo diet can be expensive, due to needing to buy grass-fed beef and organically grown produce. Also, as most foods eaten plain the diet could get monotonous after a while.
Doctor's Prescription Diets for Digestion Problems
As a doctor, I sometimes have to prescribe diets in order to diagnose and manage our patients’ digestive symptoms. These diets can be challenging to follow but need to be considered in order successfully diagnose and treat the patient.
Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD)
Why: The specific carbohydrate diet was designed to help treat:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Crohn's disease
- Celiac disease
What: The specific carbohydrate diet is designed to eliminate carbohydrates that are complex to digest. On this diet, you avoid most dairy, grain, legumes, processed meat, canned meat, canned vegetables, starchy vegetables, sugars, and many common condiments and baking ingredients.
Pros: A viable way to ease your symptoms of a range of gastrointestinal diseases without resorting to medication. Often, patients are able to reduce or stop medications for their gastrointestinal disease.
Cons: The SCD diet can be difficult to follow long-term, as there a great many eliminations. You may find it difficult to eat out at restaurants and will need to plan accordingly.
Why: Following an elimination diet is the best and most accurate way to figure out if you have food sensitivity or allergy.
What: A way to discover food allergies, by carefully removing foods that are known triggers of gastrointestinal symptoms, and reintroducing these foods at a later date to check if it makes a difference. The process lasts around 6 weeks.
I have also successfully used elimination diet as a dietary treatment for patients with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) – chronic inflammation of the esophagus. Please see my discussion regarding EoE on the digestive conditions page.
Your doctor may ask you to eliminate:
- Citrus fruits
- Chili powder or sauce
- Foods containing gelatin
- Nightshade vegetables (e.g. tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, peppers)
Pros: An elimination diet only lasts 6 weeks, and while working with your doctor, it should be easy to figure out sensitivities which may normally provoke bloating, stomach cramps, or uncomfortable bowel movements. The diet can help you find specific food triggers for irritable bowel disease (IBD).
Cons: An elimination diet is extremely restrictive, so it involves a lot of preparation of your own food, and you'd be unable to eat out over the six-week period. You can’t stay on the diet for longer than 6 weeks as this can cause nutritional deficiencies, so you must work closely with a doctor if you plan to attempt this diet.
While both the SCD and elimination diets have their place, I tend to use the low-FODMAP Diet with the majority of my patients. I have seen great success particularly for patients struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
A Doctor’s Opinion of the Low-FODMAP Diet
The low-FODMAP Diet was designed at the beginning of this century, as it was already known carbohydrates can provoke IBS. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols, the classifications of carbohydrates that cause uncomfortable symptoms.
If you’re sensitive to FODMAPs – usually classed as fiber, and therefore indigestible by humans – they can be consumed by the bad bacteria in your gut, which results in the production of hydrogen as a by-product.
The hydrogen can cause:
- Stomach cramps
FODMAPs are found in dairy products, some fruits, honey, sweeteners, wheat, legumes, most of the onion family, and many other foods.
To follow a low FODMAP diet you must stick to:
- Nuts and seeds (apart from pistachios)
- Maple syrup
- Most fats and oils
- Most citrus fruit and berries
- Lactose-free dairy products
- Hard cheeses
- Bitter leaves such as kale, spinach, and bok choy
- Nightshade vegetable
- Root vegetables
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, I’m just giving you a general idea of the diet.
The low-FODMAP diet can help improve your wellbeing if you suffer from IBS, but also it can be helpful if you have a functional gastrointestinal disorder, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease.
Pros: The clear advantage of low-FODMAP is that once the diet is helpful and clears up your symptoms, you may be able to reintroduce some FODMAPs gradually. In doing so, you can find out what your specific food sensitivities are, and ultimately find it easier to avoid them.
Cons: The disadvantage of following the low-FODMAP diet is that it can be hard to stay on for a long period of time, due to the extreme restrictions. The difficulty of the diet is why I like to work closely with my patients, to make sure they have the support, and the right resources, to make their time on low-FODMAP a success. I always make sure my patient begins to reintroduce foods after a while because I know from experience that following a restrictive diet can be challenging, and that knowledge is power – you want to know the exact foods causing you discomfort, so you can avoid them!
Gastroenterologist’s View of Dietary Options
Ultimately, food is a form of medicine, and following a gastroenterologist’s dietary recommendations can help to seriously improve and maintain your health. A specialized diet may reduce the need for many medications and give you the chance to take charge of your gastrointestinal health.
If you're concerned about the health of your gut, or would like to discuss how your diet may be affecting your digestive health with a gastroenterologist in the Dallas/Plano TX area, please fill out our appointment form or call us at 972-867-0019.