One of the first places to start when you’ve been diagnosed with IBS is to take a good look at your eating habits. And the easiest way to do this is to keep an IBS food diary.
Now whilst I certainly don’t believe that food is the enemy and you’re going to be condemned to a permanent diet of tea and toast, taking a closer look at both what you are eating and how you are eating, will provide you with some valuable clues as to how to get your bowel and IBS symptoms under control.
So in this post and in the video below, I’m going to help show you how to take a closer look between the food you’re eating and your physical IBS symptoms.
By the end of this post, my hope is that you’ll stop being afraid of mealtimes, and instead start to get a fresh understanding of how the food you’re eating, and the way you’re eating it is impacting your body.
READY? HIT PLAY
Now when it comes to IBS and food, it’s very easy to start feeling afraid of mealtimes, worrying about what you can and can’t eat. You may even start dreading what’s to come after you’ve eaten something that perhaps you think you shouldn’t.
Your life becomes consumed by your IBS and thoughts around food. You may even feel like you’d rather just go hungry than potentially trigger your IBS.
And look I get it, because I’ve been there, and preferring to go hungry than potentially paying the price of severe gut pain always felt like the easiest option.
But here’s the thing, although it’s true that certain foods can trigger or exacerbate IBS symptoms, with a little knowledge, research, and planning you can discover which foods are helpful and which are best avoided.
And to do this, I recommend you start a keeping food and symptom diary.
Now the key thing to remember as I walk you through the 6 steps I take my clients through, is this. If you do discover issues with a food, you may likely find that when your digestive system starts to calm down and settle, you can eat that food again later with no issues.
Also, remembering to keep mealtimes stress-free and rush-free will help to reduce your IBS symptoms. Because when it comes to food, it’s not just what you are eating, it’s HOW and WHEN you are eating too.
How to create an IBS Food and Symptom diary
OK, ready for step 1?
1. Create a template
The very first step of tracking your physical IBS symptoms and the food that you are eating is to create your food diary template.
You can do this in a notepad or simply use a blank piece of paper. You can also keep a record on your phone, or I’ve had clients who like to create their template on the computer.
So what do you include?
You want to divide your template into four columns and write down the following information for each day:
- Column one: Record the time that you experience your IBS symptoms, stress, or the time that you ate.
- Column two: Record the symptoms you experience such as pain, diarrohea, constipation, or bloating and include a severity score next to each from 1 to 3 – where 1 is mild, and 3 is severe.
- Column three: Here you are going to rate your stress level at the time of eating or experiencing your symptoms. Again, keep it simple using a scale of 1 to 3, where 1 is mild and 3 is severe.
It is helpful to also write down the type of stress being experienced – for example, if have had a fight with your partner, a deadline has changed at work, or you’re feeling anxious because you have to give a presentation in front of lots of people.
And finally, in column 4 you will write down everything you eat or drink each day. Be specific as possible and include the serving size. This information will help to reveal your eating patterns and possible trigger foods.
2. Understanding how a food diary works
So how does the food diary work?
You want to be keeping your food diary for 2-3 weeks so you build up a really good picture of both your physical IBS symptoms and your food intake and habits.
As I mentioned at the start, it’s important before you start labeling foods as “good” or “bad”, or “troublesome”, that you make sure your symptoms are not due to other things such as:
- Stress and emotional upset when you have been eating
- Eating a large heavy meal which can trigger something called the gastrocolic reflex
- Or eating food too quickly, or rushing meal times on the go
3. Understanding the Common Pitfalls to Look Out for
Now there are TWO common pitfalls you need to be aware of when keeping a food diary. These both run the risk of triggering further food anxiety so it’s important to be aware of them.
1. Watch out for black and white labeling of foods – this means resisting the urge to label a food ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The problem with this type of labeling is that you can start to feel hopeless, experience self-pity and feel resentment towards yourself and your IBS. Which let’s be honest isn’t helpful.
And as I mentioned right at the start, if you identify a certain food now as troublesome, it does not necessarily mean that you can never have it again.
2. Panicking after you have eaten food that you think you shouldn’t have. This triggers anxiety and something called hypervigilance about the effect it is going to have on your digestive system. The irony here is that these types of thoughts and misdirected focus often cause the very IBS flare-up you wanted to avoid.
So keeping your thoughts in check is a really valuable strategy here.
4. Become aware of the common culprits which trigger IBS symptoms
In this step I want you not just to become aware of the common culprits, but also to understand WHY they are triggering your IBS symptoms.
You see knowledge is power my friends, and understanding the reasons underlying your IBS will dramatically increase your sense of control over your symptoms.
Some foods just have a reputation for irritating the intestines, particularly spicy or gassy foods.
And remember, once you have your IBS symptoms under control, you may find that you can eat these types of foods with no issues. But when your gut is far from the happy place, or you are undergoing extreme stress or a flare-up, the following are best avoided until you get your gut back on track.
The common culprits are:
- Gas producing vegetables which fall into two categories. Category one are legumes (beans and lentils) and category two are the cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower).
- Sugars and artificial sweeteners – for example, fructose and sorbitol
- Dairy – Lactose is a sugar found in milk and dairy products, and it’s estimated that 40% of IBS suffers are lactose intolerant
- Wheat products – and keep in mind there are two types here – refined and unrefined wheat products
- Fatty foods
- Caffeine and Alcohol
Step 5 – Understanding your IBS Food Diary
After about 3 weeks of keeping a food and symptom diary, you should have enough information to identify some patterns. For example, you should start to see foods that are friendly to your digestive system, and those foods that aren’t so friendly.
To start identifying these patterns, and making sense of your symptoms, I want you to get out your food diary and ask yourself the following questions.
These questions are designed to help you get a much better understanding of what is happening in your body:
- Which foods look like they are making my symptoms worse?
- Is there evidence of lactose intolerance from dairy?
- Do I have difficulties with wheat products?
- Do certain vegetables trigger symptoms?
- When I experience a flare up of my symptoms, what was my stress level score before and during eating? How was I feeling emotionally?
- When I experience a flare up of my IBS, how large were my meal sizes? Did I have a big break between meals?
I want you to become a detective when it comes to your symptoms, and as you learn which foods you feel are safe vs troublesome, I want you to create a list of these.
If you are unsure, that’s very normal and you can just put a question mark next to that food item.
Remember, just because you find a food troublesome at the moment, does not mean you can never have it again. This is such an important point which I need to make, which is why I keep repeating it!
Step 6: Creating your own personal food guide
Ok the final step is all about creating a plan moving ahead.
As you work to change your eating habits so that you can reduce your IBS symptoms, it’s also a great time to incorporate other healthy eating strategies.
These do not need to be complicated and in fact the simpler the better.
It’s also important to make sure that any new lifestyle and healthy eating strategies fit into your life, not the other way around..
So let’s talk about what these could look like for you:
- Start eating a colourful array of natural foods which are high in nutrients – I often tell my clients to make sure they are eating the colours of the rainbow from carrots, to beetroot to blueberries, tomatoes and bananas!
- Look at HOW and WHEN you are eating and ask yourself ‘Am I really hungry?’ and “Do I feel full”? It’s amazing how much we overload our digestive system without even realising it.
- Make your mealtimes enjoyable again and reduce the anxiety that you may have felt around food in the past. Consider introducing candles, beautiful placemats, new plates and bowls, and even putting on some relaxing music while you prepare and eat your meals.
- Maintain a fairly regular schedule of meals – eating every 3-4 hours can help
- Try not to overload your gut by eating small meals and slow down when you eat
- Stop eating on the run! There are ways of eating even on the busiest of schedules that don’t involve grabbing food as you’re running out of the door!
Help is at hand
So now you know the 6 steps to not just keeping a food and symptom diary, but what you can do with that information to help identify triggers and manage your IBS symptoms.
But if you do need more help with understanding your triggers and managing your symptoms then my program, The Calm Gut Method may just be the answer.
You can learn more about the work I do with my clients and The Calm Gut Method here.
I would also love to invite you to my free facebook group where you get to ask your questions and get advice from myself on your IBS. You can join that group by clicking this link.