You may have heard before that what you eat can cause Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or other digestive diseases. This is a common misconception about these conditions that’s often perpetuated, but it’s not correct. While physicians aren’t entirely sure what causes Crohn’s or other digestive diseases, they don’t originate with diet choices. Although what you eat can’t cause you to develop Crohn’s, your diet can have a big impact on the effective management of your Crohn’s symptoms.
Diet and Crohn's Symptoms
At this point, researchers haven’t tied the inflammation of the intestines to any specific food or group of foods. While there isn’t a list of foods that should be avoided at all cost to prevent a flare up of Crohn’s symptoms or other bowel disease symptoms, how you manage your diet can have a serious impact on managing these symptoms once they occur.
It’s important to remember that there isn’t one specific diet that will prove helpful for every patient who suffers from an inflammatory bowel disease. Your own body and digestive system, the type of symptoms you experience, and where in your digestive system those symptoms present will react differently to different diets and types of foods. An effective first step in learning what foods exacerbate your symptoms and under what conditions is to keep a food diary.
A food diary is pretty simple, and maybe self-explanatory: it’s a book where you write down what you eat. While this can get tedious, in the long run it can prove incredibly helpful. When you’re dealing with an inflammation of the digestive system, you can use your food diary to pinpoint problem foods. Your food diary can also be an excellent resource for you and your dietician to use. Because you chronicle the specific foods you eat and the effects they have on your body, you’ll be able to understand more clearly what effects your diet may be having on your overall health.
Although there isn’t one specific diet plan that everyone can use to manage their Crohn’s symptoms, there are some general principles and tips that you can use as a starting point in figuring out what’s effective for your health.
For starters, pay attention to your food diary. If you start to notice that your symptoms are always worsened by a particular food, maybe a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, then avoid eating that food.
One of the most general principles to remember when planning your diet is to try and maintain a balanced eating plan. A balanced diet needs to include foods like meat and poultry that provide protein, bread and other starches that provide carbohydrates, and oils and certain vegetables as sources of fats.
The Role of Fluids in Symptom Management
While not something you eat, what you drink can also be an important factor in symptoms management. When dealing with any diarrheal illness, the risk of dehydration is always higher. Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated will keep your health overall as well as helping mitigate your digestive symptoms. As a role, you should drink one ounce of water for every two pounds you weigh. In other words, take your body weight and divide it by half, that’s how much water you should be drinking on a daily basis.
In addition to drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, you should also avoid things that dehydrate you. Caffeine from coffee and sugary drinks like soda are prime culprits for robbing your body of the hydrating benefits of water. Be sure to limit your consumption of these types of beverages.
Tips for Managing Cramping
If you’re dealing with an inflammation of symptoms, then you may be especially concerned about figuring out ways to manage the digestive cramping that can occur after eating. One of the easiest changes you can make to your diet to help manage cramping is to adjust the portions and frequency of your meals. Overeating can be a major contributor to digestive cramping. Eating three meals a day may leave you hungrier at meal time and increase the likelihood that you’ll overeat. Instead, try eating five smaller meals spaced more regularly throughout the day. When you approach a meal, you’ll be less hungry so you’re less likely to overeat.
Too much dairy, especially if you’re lactose intolerant, can be another culprit in post meal cramps. If you find that dairy consistently causes cramping, then you may want to limit your dairy intake or talk to your doctor about the possibility of being lactose intolerant. Either way, you’ll still want to be sure to get plenty of calcium in your diet whether that’s through other sources or taking a lactase supplement to enable the consumption of dairy.
Fried or greasy foods should also be avoided. While fried and greasy foods aren’t known for being particularly healthy anyways, they can be especially disruptive. You should also be careful to regulate your fiber intake. While fiber is important for good digestive health, too much fiber can cause a narrowing of the bowels which will in turn increase cramping.
Maintaining Your Eating Plan
After you’ve kept a food diary and identified some of the specific items and type of foods that are particularly problematic for you, the next step is to create an eating plan that will put your findings into practice. When trying to come up with a plan, remembering general rules of dietary health can be helpful. A balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is important in maintaining overall health.
But you also need to prioritize eating, or not eating, the specific foods that are problematic for you, that’s the whole point of an eating plan! If there are certain foods that are typically considered unhealthy or junk food, like pizza for example, that don’t cause you problems, then feel free to incorporate them into your plan.
Eating out or going to parties can be another tricky challenge when trying to follow a specific diet plan. If you’re going to a new restaurant, then try checking out the menu online beforehand so you can get a feel for what they offer. If you’re not sure what the ingredients are in a particular dish, then ask. It’s always better to ask and be sure than to risk it and regret it later.
If you’re going to a party or social function, then there are several strategies you can try. You can call the host ahead of time and offer to bring a dish. If you bring something, then you’ll be sure there’s at least one thing you can eat. You can always ask the host about what’s being served too and simply explain that you’re on a medical diet. Alternatively, you can eat ahead of time. That way when you get to the party you can enjoy diet friendly food if it’s available, or avoid the offerings entirely if they’re going to be problematic for you.
The Bottom Line
While no specific food can cause the development of Crohn’s or other bowel diseases, and while no food can cure it either, maintaining a careful diet can have a big impact on the management of your symptoms. Keeping a detailed food diary is a great first step in figuring out what foods you can and can’t eat. After you’ve identified problem items and safe standbys, then you can develop a diet plan that will help keep your symptoms under control. While developing and diet plan and maintaining can be challenging, the benefits of being careful with what you eat will definitely pay off in the long run.