If you stress eat, overeat, or struggle with food addiction then you’re no stranger to the pain, embarrassment, and inconvenience of an upset tummy.
Sometimes, there’s more going on though. Susan Cole found out that her digestive pain was actually caused by a condition called ‘irritable bowel syndrome’ (or IBS). IBS isn’t well understood or diagnosed but is characterized most often by nasty digestive complaints your doctor can’t find a good reason for.
Yeah, seriously – it’s what they tell you you have when they’re out of other ideas.
IBS can be worsened by overeating – and it can also contribute to cravings and binge behavior. There’s anecdotal evidence that stress eating and overeating can cause IBS (mainly through increasing gut permeability and decreasing immunity, but the research isn’t there to support this yet).
So, if you suffer from:
- diarrhea, constipation, or a confusing mix of the two
- gas, bloating, and fluid retention
and you can’t pinpoint what’s causing it, you may have IBS (though as always, check with your doctor – I am not a doctor).
This is exactly where Susan ended up. She struggled for years with IBS before finding the low-FODMAP diet – which has, quite simply, changed her life.
Here’s some of Susan’s story and how you can get started on a low-FODMAP experiment of your own.
FODMAPs and my life
– Written by Susan Cole from Fabulous FODMAPs.
I know what you’re thinking – Is it really possible that a diet can change your life? Sounds like quite a claim eh?
I’d suffered from IBS for over 20 years, though it wasn’t diagnosed until just a few years ago. Over that time I’d learned to live with (or at least to cope with) all the embarrassing symptoms that IBS brings. The discomfort and embarrassment became ‘normal’. However, a few years ago my symptoms became a whole lot worse.
When I say they became a whole lot worse you can be sure I’m not talking about a bit of extra bloating and discomfort. The pain had increased to a point where all I could do was to roll up in a ball on the floor in tears. This was pain that lasted for days and each time it lasted longer than before. Pain killers didn’t help and my G.P had advised me that some could even make it worse.
I was taking increasingly lengthy periods off work, found it hard to leave the house, and was pretty miserable. That was the point where I was finally diagnosed with IBS.
I’ll be honest; I wasn’t sure that the diagnosis was correct. I understood IBS to be a minor condition. What I was experiencing was a major problem! I’ve since learned that IBS is indeed a chronic and debilitating condition. But I also discovered that it’s one that can be managed very successfully through diet.
Introducing the low FODMAP diet
I can vividly remember the moment I first came across the low FODMAP diet. It was one of those light bulb moments – it just made so much sense. And it felt empowering! What I discovered was a science based diet that offered me the chance to take back control of my own health.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are types of short chain carbohydrates (sugars) which are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. As a result, they create an excess of gas and fluid in the gut. This triggers the symptoms of IBS.
By reducing the amount of high FODMAP food in the diet (those foods which are highly fermentable) we can reduce the IBS symptoms. As all foods (except meat and fats) contain FODMAPs this is about keeping the level low rather than excluding them entirely.
F = Fermentable. The food creates gas as a result of fermentation!
O = Oligosaccharides. This group includes Fructo-oligosaccharides found in wheat, onions, and peaches (to name but a few) and Galacto-oligosaccharides which are found in pulses.
D = Disaccharides. Lactose has to be avoided though surprisingly not all dairy products contain high levels of lactose.
M = Monosaccharides. Fructose has to be avoided during exclusion though only where it is in excess of glucose. This group includes certain fruits, vegetables, and honey.
A = and
P = Polyols. Polyols are found in sweeteners. As a rule of thumb, if it ends in ‘ol’ (such as sorbitol) it is a polyol.
The Two Stages of FODMAP
Not surprisingly, a low FODMAP diet requires a rather scientific approach on the part of the person following it. But I assure you it is very doable.
During the first stage (lasting 6 to 8 weeks) you need to cut out ALL high-FODMAP foods to give your digestive system time to rest and recover. This stage is quite a challenge and worth preparing for so that you have all the ingredients you need to hand.
After this period you can begin to reintroduce excluded foods group by group while keeping note of how your body responds. (It may be that you can tolerate fructose but not lactose, for example.) This allows you to identify your ‘trigger’ foods. Depending on how your body responds, and to what extent, you may need to repeat the exclusion stage for a short while until your tummy has settled before re-introducing another food group. The aim is not to exclude all high-FODMAP foods long term but to find a balanced diet that you can enjoy without becoming unwell.
I heartily recommend the Monash low FODMAP phone app as it has a simple ‘traffic light’ guide to high and low FODMAP foods as well as some recipes to get you started. The revenue from the purchase of the app goes into further research by the department. Personally, I’m happy to help fund that. It’s also recommended that you carry out this diet with the help of a professional.
Is It Worth It?
Like I said at the top of my article, the low FODMAP diet has changed my life.
I’ve been able to come off the medication my G.P had prescribed and that awful pain is a thing of the past. I can’t say that my digestion is perfect, but it is 100% better than it was. I also have more energy than I’ve had in many years and I feel like I can live, pretty much, an ordinary life. If you know the misery of IBS you’ll know it’s worth it.
I’ve tried low-FODMAP eating myself because I am sensitive to monosaccharides (though I didn’t know this before I started, I only knew certain fruits gave me cramps and that I was crazy gassy and bloated at weird times).
It took a bit of research and planning. It was mentally a little weird to be excluding perfectly healthy foods, but the smart phone app helped hugely. I got the hang of it and while I don’t have to eat low FODMAP all the time, I do have a lot more knowledge about how my body reacts to certain foods.
Side benefit: this has helped me avoid the ‘poor me’ eating I’d do when I felt cramping and gassy. So, double win!
If you want to do a low FODMAP experiment of your own, check out Calm Belly Kitchen – it’s amazing.