What is the FODMAP Diet?
Find out about a new diet that can eliminate bloating and other tummy travails.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the FODMAP diet. This awkwardly named diet is often recommended as a way to relieve chronic digestive complaints such as bloating, abdominal pain, gas, excessive burping, diarrhea and constipation. These symptoms are common in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but lots of people without a formal diagnosis also struggle with them. Although it doesn’t help everyone, the FODMAP diet is actually a real breakthrough, bringing dramatic relief to many who have suffered for years from seemingly untreatable digestive issues.
What are FODMAPs?
FODMAP is an acronym for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, and Mono-saccharides And Polyols. (You can see why they went for the short version!). And the FODMAP diet is more properly called the Low FODMAPs diet, because the idea is to limit your consumption of these nutrients.
All of these nutrients are in the carbohydrate family; some are sugars (such as lactose and fructose), others are sugar alcohols (such as sorbitol and mannitol), and some are non-digestible fibers (such as fructans and galactans). All occur naturally in whole foods such as fruit, dairy, beans, and grains. Sugar alcohols are also used in more concentrated amounts in food processing to produce sugar-free and diabetic foods.
How Do FODMAPs Affect Digestion?
Different FODMAPs present different issues in digestion. The sugars require specific enzymes for proper digestion and an absence of these enzymes can cause problems. The sugar alcohols are highly osmotic, meaning that they tend to pull water into the digestive tract from the surrounding tissues. The fibers serve as food for your gut bacteria, which digest them via a process of fermentation, producing carbon dioxide in the intestines.
All of this is perfectly natural and--although consuming large amounts of these compounds could lead to digestive discomfort for just about anyone--most people don’t have trouble with the amounts encountered in a typical diet. In fact, some of these nutrients serve beneficial roles, such as acting as prebiotics that foster healthy gut bacteria.
Some folks, however, seem to have a lower tolerance for some or all of the FODMAPs. When they eat more than small amounts of these nutrients, they end up with severe bloating, distention, pain, and all kinds of other miseries. Fortunately, the solution is fairly simple. A low FODMAP diet often solves the problem. Note that it’s usually not necessary to achieve a Zero-FODMAP diet in order to get relief.
Which Foods Contain FODMAPs?
Foods that are high in FODMAPs include most dairy products, certain fruits (including apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, watermelons, stone fruit, mango and papaya), certain vegetables (including artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, garlic, and mushrooms), certain grains (including wheat, rye, barley, and spelt), most legumes (including soybeans), certain sweeteners (including honey and agave nectar), and some food additives (such as chicory root, inulin, and xylitol).
Fortunately, there is an equally long list of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy alternatives, sweeteners, and other foods that are low in FODMAPs. You can find detailed lists of high and low FODMAP foods on the internet. Here’s one that you can print out. There are, of course, also smart phone aps for this as well.
Although there is definitely a learning curve involved, it’s not hard to put together a varied and balanced diet, using only low FODMAP foods. And if it brings blessed relief from long-standing misery, the effort is obviously well worth it. Plus, there’s a good chance that you can eventually reintroduce at least some of these foods.
Life After FODMAPs
One of the reasons that the low FODMAP diet is so strikingly effective is that it casts a fairly wide net. It eliminates several categories of compounds which, together, are responsible for a large share of digestive drama. However, you may only be sensitive to one or two of these compounds and not all of them—in which case you’ve eliminated a bunch of foods that weren’t actually a problem for you.
Once things have calmed down in Tummytown, there’s an opportunity to do some further investigation. You can test your tolerance for different FODMAPs by introducing them one at a time and seeing if symptoms recur. You might, for example, figure out that beans and grains aren’t a problem for you as long as you stay away from dairy. Or, you might establish that fructose malabsorption is your issue and that, as long as you stick to the low fructose fruits and vegetables, everything else is back on the table. And so on.
If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to an excellent handout prepared by the University of Arizona Campus Health Service. However, I’d also encourage you to work with a qualified nutrition professional.
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FODMAP Diet Guidelines (University of Arizona Campus Health Services)
Chart of High and Low FODMAP Foods (IBSGroup.org)
Man with Stomach Pains image from Shutterstock