When it comes to treating or preventing diarrhea, diet is an important factor to consider. Diet is important:
- During and after an acute diarrhea attack.
- In helping to diagnose causes of chronic diarrhea.
- In preventing traveler’s diarrhea.
- In treating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and celiac disease.
During and shortly after an acute attack of diarrhea, a “Diarrhea diet” should focus on:
- Replacing lost fluids and electrolytes.
- Avoiding certain foods that can make diarrhea worse (such as fried foods).
- Including foods that are easy to digest (such as plain rice).
Many people think that drinking fluids during bouts of diarrhea will worsen the diarrhea. This is not true. In fact, drinking fluids is very important during bouts of diarrhea to prevent dehydration, which is the loss of vital fluids and electrolytes (sodium and potassium). Proper hydration is especially important in children with diarrhea because they can die from dehydration within a couple of days.
Although water is extremely important in preventing dehydration, it does not contain electrolytes. Good choices to help maintain electrolyte levels include broth or soups (which contain sodium), and certain fruit juices, soft fruits, or vegetables (which contain potassium).
For children, doctors often recommend a special rehydration solution that contains the nutrients they need. You can buy this solution in the grocery store without a prescription. Examples of rehydration solutions include Pedialyte®, CeraLyte®, and Infalyte®.
Foods to avoid as part of the “Diarrhea diet”
While you are waiting for the diarrhea to end, you should avoid foods that can make it worse. Some foods that can make diarrhea worse include:
- Milk and milk products (except yogurt), such as ice cream or cheese.
- High–fat or greasy foods, such as fried foods.
- Very sweet foods, such as cakes and cookies.
- Foods that have a lot of fiber, such as citrus fruits.
- Apple juice, pear juice, and cherry juice. White grape juice is a good alternative.
- Any foods that contain Olestra®, such as fat–free potato chips or fat–free ice cream.
- Sugar–free gum or mints.
- Drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, or soda.
As you recover from a bout of diarrhea, the best foods to start eating are easily digested, high–carbohydrate foods. These include:
- Plain rice.
- Boiled potatoes.
- Cooked carrots.
- Baked chicken without the skin or fat.
For children, the pediatrician may recommend what is called the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.
Using diet to help diagnose chronic diarrhea
Any diarrhea that lasts longer than two weeks is known as chronic diarrhea. As part of diagnosing the cause of chronic diarrhea, the healthcare provider will typically ask a number of questions. Based on the answers to these questions (along with the physical exam), your healthcare provider may suspect that a food intolerance or food allergy is causing your diarrhea. In such cases, your healthcare provider may ask you to avoid foods containing:
- Lactose, which is found in milk products (and can cause diarrhea in people with a lactose intolerance).
- Gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley (if your healthcare provider suspects celiac disease).
- Other substances.
A traveler’s preventative diarrhea diet
Traveler’s diarrhea may occur when you consume food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. There are precautions you can take to prevent traveler’s diarrhea when you go abroad.
As part of the traveler’s diarrhea diet
- Avoid drinking tap water or using ice cubes made from tap water. Do not use tap water when brushing your teeth.
- Avoid drinking unpasteurized milk or eating dairy products made from it.
- Do not eat meat or shellfish that is not hot when served to you.
- Avoid all raw fruits and vegetables (including lettuce and fruit salad) unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself.
- Do not eat raw or rare meat or fish.
- Do not eat food sold by street vendors.
Medical conditions and the diarrhea diet
There are a number of medical conditions that can cause diarrhea. Two such medical conditions include irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease. Both of these conditions can be improved through changes in diet.
IBS, diarrhea, and diet
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a condition that interferes with the normal functions of the colon. Common IBS symptoms include crampy abdominal pain (or stomach pain), bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
For many people with irritable bowel syndrome, diet can help control the symptoms of IBS. However, everyone’s IBS diet will be a little different because types of food that affect one person may not affect another and vice versa. So one of the first steps for anyone diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome is to become familiar with foods that have been known to worsen or improve symptoms of the condition.
Many people with IBS find that they have problems with certain foods, including
- Dairy products.
- Caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, some teas, and some soft drinks.
- Alcoholic beverages.
- Spicy foods.
- Certain raw fruits and vegetables, especially broccoli and cabbage.
- Fruit juices.
- Artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol or mannitol
- High–fat foods such as butter, red meat, avocados, and nuts.
Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. People who have celiac disease cannot tolerate a protein called gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley.
For a person diagnosed with celiac disease, treatment begins with a gluten–free diet for life. A gluten–free diet is the only diet for celiac disease that will treat the condition.