The Basics of the Low-FODMAP Diet
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. (There’s an acronym for a reason!). The Low-FODMAP diet is a short-term diet low in foods that contain FODMAPs and is meant to alleviate symptoms of those who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols are short-chain carbohydrates like lactose, fructose and sugar alcohols. These carbohydrates are referred to as “fermentable” because they can be digested by bacteria in the large intestine.
FODMAPs are found in many different foods from fruits – apples, cherries, mangos, to vegetables – artichokes, onions, peas, to soft cheeses, yogurt and honey. Polyols are another example, which are sugar alcohols that are often used to sweeten chewing gums.
It’s impossible to tell whether a food is high or low in FODMAPS by just looking at it. For instance, cherries are high in FODMAPs, while blueberries are not. This does not mean that cherries are somehow less healthy than blueberries. For most people, FODMAPs are perfectly safe and foods containing them contribute to a healthy eating pattern. However, for some people with IBS or IBD, removing them from the diet for a short period of time, may help alleviate symptoms.
Guidelines for a Low-FODMAP Diet
Unlike many diets out there, the low-FODMAP diet is not a weight loss diet for otherwise healthy people. Low-FODMAP diets are intended as a short-term, approximately 21 day intervention to relieve symptoms of IBS and IBD. IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder with symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. There is no known cure, but low-FODMAP diets may help manage IBS symptoms. IBD describes two conditions – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, that cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract resulting in symptoms including a change in bowel habits, abdominal pain and fatigue.
It’s important to emphasize that a low-FODMAP diet is not meant to be followed indefinitely. It’s meant to help people learn which foods, if any, might be causing gastrointestinal issues. After the elimination phase, foods should be reintroduced in a planned-out manner to home in on the offending culprits. A person will then personalize their diet long-term, based on the types and amounts of FODMAPs they can tolerate.
The Low-FODMAP Diet and Health
The fermentation of FODMAPS in the large intestine produces gas, which can lead to flatulence, borborygmus – rumbling and gurgling in the intestines and bloating. They also draw water into the large bowel, which can lead to diarrhea. By reducing the amount of these short-chain carbohydrates, a low-FODMAP diet essentially reduces gastrointestinal symptoms that may be exacerbated by certain foods. While the research on low-FODMAP diets is emerging, initial studies and reviews suggest that restricting FODMAPs reduces “functional gut symptoms,” and that even a short-term restriction seems to have a lasting effect after FODMAP-containing foods are re-introduced into the diet.
I Have Some of Those IBS and IBD symptoms. Should I Go on a Low-FODMAP Diet?
IBS and IBD diagnoses should only be made by a medical practitioner. A low-FODMAP diet is very restrictive, can be challenging to follow and may result in dietary insufficiencies if followed for too long. Monash University in Australia – where the diet was developed, recommends starting this diet with the assistance of a registered dietitian.
The Bottom Line
The low-FODMAP diet may be in the news more often these days but that does not mean it is an appropriate or safe diet for everyone. Low-FODMAP diets are specific diets meant for a specific population to follow for a short time. There are plenty of eating plans and tools out there meant for healthy adults, whatever your health goal may be.
This blog post was written by Julie Hess, Ph.D., the 2017 Sylvia Rowe Fellow and includes contributions from Alyssa Pike, R.D.