Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is marked by frequent abdominal cramps, irregular bowel movements, watery or hard stool and bloating. Medications may help reduce symptoms in some people but there is no medical cure. While IBS does not cause lasting damage to your digestive system, it is a very uncomfortable condition. One relatively new theory suggests that sufferers can subdue symptoms by reducing their intake of certain kinds of foods—those containing fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (known collectively as FODMAPs). FODMAPs are sugars and sugar alcohols found in foods like honey, dairy, wheat, beans and avocado.
Several hypotheses explain why people with IBS might be better off eating fewer FODMAP foods. One possible explanation is that these foods absorb a lot of water, potentially causing bloating or swelling in the intestines. Another thought is that FODMAP foods may be fermented by bacteria, which can release gas that further upsets the digestive system. A third hypothesis, which is supported by ongoing research, is that FODMAP foods may have an effect on the collection of microorganisms in your intestines.
So far, there are few studies about IBS patients on low FODMAP diets. However, a very small Australian study, published in Gastroenterology in 2013, shows some promise.
In this three-week study of 30 people with IBS and eight people without IBS, researchers found that participants on a diet low in FODMAP foods showed improvements in IBS symptoms such as bloating and gas after one week (when compared to those on a typical Australian diet). This small study now gives the scientific community the green light to perform a larger study on the same topic.
What should you do if you are among the 10 to 15 percent of people in the U.S. who have IBS? The bottom line: While we need more studies on FODMAPs, a low-FODMAP diet should be safe and might be worth a try. But consult your doctor and your nutritionist first because this type of diet can be difficult to follow. This handout offers a detailed description of foods low in FODMAPs.