If you’ve been hanging around with me for a little while now, either through my blog, email letters, or over on social media, you may have noticed I’ve been dropping the F-word quite a bit.
No, not that F-word. (I’m much classier than that ;))
I’m talking about FODMAPs.
Don’t worry…if you’re not sure what that word means you’re most definitely not alone.
In this post I’m giving you a brief overview of the Low FODMAP Diet, what exactly it is and how it works, and what you should know before you begin one.
What the heck is a FODMAP?
FODMAP is actually an acronym for a group of short-chained carbohydrates (certain sugars and fibres) that are poorly digested and absorbed in the small intestine, and as a result, lead to unpleasant digestive symptoms in some individuals who have a sensitive gut – typically associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other gut-related conditions, such as Small Intestinal Overgrowth (SIBO).
These poorly absorbed FODMAPS travel to the colon largely intact where they become food for the microbes (healthy or otherwise) that naturally reside there. As a by-product of this “break-down” or fermentation process, these microbes produce gases that can contribute to bloating, abdominal distension, pain, and cramping.
Furthermore, these undigested FODMAPs also have an osmotic effect, meaning they draw water into the intestines – which can contribute to further bloating and distention. And if you’re somebody who already has fast motility to begin with, this can equate to loose stools and diarrhea.
Overall, this lovely little combo of gas and water can lead to altered and unpredictable bowel motility – both constipation and loose stools.
The Low FODMAP Diet as a Tool for IBS Sufferers
The Low FODMAP diet is a dietary regimen that was designed by researchers at Monash University in Australia to help minimize the GI (Gastrointestinal) symptoms associated with IBS.
Research has shown that up to 75% of IBS sufferers experience relief when following a low FODMAP diet.
With up to 15% of the world population suffering from this functional gut disorder and its associated symptoms of bloating, abdominal pain, distension, excess gas, and altered bowel motility (constipation and/or diarrhea), the ramifications of these findings is quite significant.
Although each person’s experience of IBS can greatly differ within the known range of symptoms, for many people it’s a debilitating condition that can severely affect their quality of life.
FODMAP stands for:
Fermentable (carbohydrates easily broken down by gut bacteria)
Oligosaccharides (Fructans and Galacto-oligosacchardies aka GOS)
Monosaccharides (excess fructose)
Polyols (sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and mannitol)
As you can see it’s quite a mouthful, so let’s just stick with the acronym, shall we?
High FODMAP Foods
Here’s a brief sampling of some high FODMAP foods by their respective categories. It’s important to note that foods can contain more than one group of FODMAPs.
Fructans: wheat, barley, rye, onions, garlic, nectarines, dried figs, inulin (added to many packaged goods)
GOS: legumes, cashews, pistachios
Lactose: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream
Excess Fructose: apples, pears, mangos, asparagus, honey, agave nectar, high-fructose corn syrup
Polyols: apples, apricots, blackberries, mushrooms, cauliflower, snow peas, sweeteners like xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol
Low FODMAP Foods
This is by no means a complete list, but some of the foods considered to be low FODMAP include:
Grapes, oranges, blueberries, strawberries, bell peppers, bok choy, carrots, eggplant, most leafy greens, cucumbers, brown and white rice, quinoa, polenta, almond milk, goat cheese, feta, cheddar, lactose-free yogurt, chia seeds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, beef, chicken, eggs, fish, firm tofu, tempeh, butter, olive oil, coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, peanut butter, maple syrup, dark chocolate, stevia (w/out inulin, FOS, or chicory root), most spices (except onion and garlic powder), black, green, and white tea, peppermint tea, coffee.
Keep in mind that FODMAPs are a type of carbohydrate, so if the food contains no carbohydrates, such as the case with many animal proteins and pure fats (i.e. oils), it’s safe to assume that it wouldn’t contain any naturally occurring FODMAPs.
Size Matters (BIG TIME)
When following this diet it’s not enough to just eat from a list of low FODMAP foods and avoid lists of high FODMAP foods, because in many cases the portion size matters.
Some foods that are considered low FODMAP can quickly become high FODMAP when eaten in larger quantities, just as some foods that are considered high FODMAP can be considered low FODMAP (and enjoyed) in a smaller portion size (i.e. 1 tbsp. vs ½ a cup).
A great reference guide for portion sizes is the Monash University Low FODMAP Diet app that can be downloaded to your smartphone. I highly recommend it as it’s continually being updated with the latest FODMAP research. (see resources below).
How the Diet Works (3 Stages)
1) Elimination Phase. For 2 – 6 weeks all high FODMAP foods are restricted. The point of the elimination period is to get GI symptoms under control and to assess whether or not these foods might be contributing to your symptoms.
2) Reintroduction/Re-challenge Phase. Each group and subgroup of high FODMAP foods are methodically tested one at a time and in varying portion sizes to see which ones might be potential culprits. You may discover that you can handle a small serving size of some foods, but a larger quantity triggers symptoms. And it’s not uncommon to find that only 1 or 2 categories of FODMAPs are problematic for you.
3) Personalization Phase. Based on your findings you can customize your diet to your unique needs and preferences. Once you know which foods trigger your symptoms, you can continue to either limit them or modify the portion size to suit yourself. Since FODMAPs have a cumulative effect, you may be able to eat small amounts of your “trigger foods” as long as your total overall FODMAP load is low.
What You Should Know Before You Begin
Before jumping into the diet here are some important considerations to be aware of:
It’s a Temporary Diet. After you complete the Elimination phase of the diet, the goal is to only avoid (or reduce) those foods that trigger your symptoms while adding back in all of the others foods that don’t and that you enjoy. It’s not about eliminating all high FODMAP foods forever.
Don’t Equate FODMAPs with Unhealthy. As you likely noticed from the food lists above, many foods high in FODMAPS are actually quite nutritious and considered part of a sustainable healthy diet. Remember, the idea is to find out which foods trigger your symptoms (and in what quantities) and then introduce them back into your diet in a way that you can enjoy them without suffering and having to police every bite.
(Of course there are some that you can ditch for good if you please. I’m *looking* at you high-fructose corn syrup.)
It’s One Piece of the Digestive Health Puzzle. While some people experience a significant reduction in their symptoms when following this diet, there may still be other factors that need to be considered alongside a low FODMAP diet such as overall diet quality, eating behaviours, hydration, stress, intestinal infections, and other potential non-FODMAP food sensitivities.
It’s NOT the First Place to Start. As you’ve likely gathered by now, this diet can be quite restrictive. While a little sacrifice upfront in the short-term can mean long-term freedom and empowerment if you can pinpoint food culprits, there are still many other factors that should be addressed first (i.e. diet, eating habits) that can potentially provide a significant relief in symptoms without having to be so restrictive from the get-go.
Seek Guidance. If you’re seriously considering following this diet fully (as in ALL in), at the very least download the Monash University app as mentioned above. Better yet though, consider working with a Certified Nutritionist or natural health practitioner who is well-versed with this diet and can guide you through each phase while keeping you accountable.
Final Thoughts: Is a Low FODMAP Diet Right for You?
If you suffer from IBS, or another functional gut disorder, and the associated symptoms of abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea/loose stools, bloating, and/or distention, then it’s definitely worth considering. Although to reiterate the point mentioned above under the list of considerations, it’s definitely not the first place to start.
It also goes without saying that it’s always important to see your medical practitioner first to rule out more serious GI diseases (i.e. Celiac Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and some gynecological conditions, which can have similar symptoms to IBS.
With that said, individuals with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (i.e. Crohn’s) or Celiac Disease can have IBS-like symptoms occur at the same time, so in conjunction with the standard treatments for these conditions (i.e. a gluten-free diet for Celiac Disease), a low FODMAP diet may provide further relief.
Monash Low FODMAP Diet app: https://www.monash.edu/medicine/ccs/gastroenterology/fodmap/education/iphone-app