15 Trigger Foods You Should Beware of if You Have IBS

IBS-trigger foods can vary, but some common culprits exist. Learn about the top 15 foods to avoid if you have IBS and how to ease your symptoms.

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by
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN
— Signos
Health & Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
February 23, 2024
July 16, 2023
— Updated:

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal health conditions, affecting 5 to 10% of people globally. Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating, ranging from mild to debilitating.

An IBS diagnosis is divided into subtypes, depending on the shape and consistency of bowel movements: IBS-D (diarrhea predominant), IBS-C (constipation-predominant), IBS-mixed (both diarrhea and constipation), and IBS-U (symptoms are present but less than 25% of bowel movements are abnormal).

Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disease in which the digestive tract's function is altered without structural damage to the intestines. Many factors influence whether someone is more likely to develop IBS and how severe symptoms are, but food plays an important role. 

Food triggers are highly individualized to each person, and symptoms (and food triggers) can vary from person to person and can even change over time. Working with your doctor and a registered dietitian can help you identify your food triggers. Below, you'll learn some of the most common foods that trigger IBS symptoms and what foods and lifestyle habits can help you feel better sooner.

What Are the Worst Foods for IBS? A List

Food is a primary factor in addressing IBS and overall gut health. The food you eat directly influences the health of your gut microbiome, the collection of microbes that live in the GI tract. 

The symbiotic relationship between human health and microbes has evolved over thousands of years, and research has only recently tapped the surface of how important a healthy gut microbiome is for our overall health. Studies suggest that diet habits can support or adversely impact the health of these microbes.

Generally, a healthy gut microbiome is diverse, with many different types of beneficial bacteria. When the balance of healthy microbes is thrown off—known as dysbiosis—it opens the door for the growth of potentially pathogenic species and gut health issues.

Dysbiosis is linked to food intolerances, immune dysregulation, and a higher risk of digestive conditions like IBS. Dysbiosis and gut health also influence inflammation in the gut, which can directly impact IBS symptoms. When IBS symptoms are flaring, it can feel like no foods are safe, but some foods are more likely than others to trigger symptoms. 

Elimination diets can help you narrow down the culprit to feel better sooner. Sometimes it's a personal intolerance where a particular food or ingredient doesn't agree with your GI system. Other times it's related to what's in the food and how it's broken down. Expert recommendations suggest that finding these triggers through elimination diets can help lower symptoms and improve quality of life. 2

A common elimination diet used to address symptoms of IBS is the low FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These short-chain carbohydrates in certain foods aren't well absorbed, leading to diarrhea or gas, bloating, and constipation from bacterial fermentation. Not everyone responds the same way to FODMAPs, and some studies suggest that the diet is more successful for people with IBS-D.

Elimination diets are meant to be followed short term so you can pinpoint problematic foods, calm the gut, and reintroduce more foods. Working with someone to guide you through the process is helpful, but you can also use the following list to consider potential triggers and experiment with removing them from your diet to see if you notice any changes.

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Foods That Can Trigger IBS Diarrhea

  • Polyols: Erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol are all polyols, sugar alcohols (and the "P" in FODMAP) found naturally in some foods but also added to sugar-free foods. They are poorly absorbed (especially for sensitive people with IBS) and can cause diarrhea, bloating, and gas.
  • Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose may trigger IBS-D symptoms, though more studies are needed. Studies suggest they may impact the gut microbiome and motility (how fast food moves through the GI tract).
  • Insoluble fiber: Fiber increases the speed food moves through the digestive tract. Insoluble fiber—one of the two main fiber categories found in foods like beans, nuts, and whole grains—may be more of a trigger than soluble fiber and is found in foods like oats, apples, and pears (although this can also vary between people).171717
  • Coffee: Coffee is so good at helping with bowel movements that some people drink it for constipation—not helpful for people with IBS-D. Since it's so acidic, coffee can also be hard on your stomach and cause abdominal pain while increasing the urge to have a bowel movement. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Vegetables like kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli may trigger IBS-D symptoms for some people. These vegetables are high in fiber and can be difficult to digest, especially if you're already in a flare. Sometimes this means cutting them out temporarily until the gut calms down or sticking to cooked options to make it easier for the body to break down.
  • Gluten: Not everyone with IBS needs to avoid gluten, but it can trigger symptoms even if you don't have celiac disease (an autoimmune condition where gluten triggers the autoimmune response). Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition that can cause IBS-like symptoms after ingesting gluten. One study showed that people with IBS who cut out gluten reported significantly improved IBS symptoms.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol can affect gut motility (how foods move through the digestive tract) and is often reported as problematic by people with IBS. Drinking also may adversely impact healthy gut bacteria.
  • Fructose: Fructose is naturally found in fruits and some vegetables, but it is also added as a sweetener to many processed foods and drinks as high-fructose corn syrup. Studies show that people with IBS tend to experience more symptoms after ingesting fructose.
  • Highly processed foods: Packaged snacks and sweets may trigger IBS symptoms. Research suggests an association between a high intake of processed foods and an increased risk of developing IBS. 
  • Spicy foods: Some research suggests that spicy food can increase GI transit and cause pain and burning in sensitive individuals.21

Foods That Can Trigger IBS Constipation

  • Ultra-processed foods: Like IBS-D, IBS-C symptoms can be exacerbated by processed snacks filled with additives and preservatives that may trigger stomach pain, bloating, and constipation.24
  • Dairy products. Dairy products can be difficult for some people with IBS to digest and can contribute to constipation and bloating (even without lactose intolerance).21
  • High-fat foods: High-fat or deep-fried foods like french fries, fatty meat, or baked goods can worsen constipation by impairing bowel motility and (gas clearance), leading to bloating and constipation.21
  • Soda and carbonated drinks. While not a trigger for everyone, if you're already experiencing constipation or bloating, anything with carbonation can add to gas and worsen symptoms.
  • Gluten. Just as gluten can cause symptoms for people with IBS-D, people with constipation-predominant IBS may note added constipation, bloating, and gas with gluten ingestion. 
  • Bananas: Ripe bananas (but not unripe) are considered a high FODMAP food, causing problems like constipation for people with IBS. 

Other Triggers For IBS

Food is often the first trigger people consider because it may be the most obvious, but other potential triggers for IBS can lead to aggravation of symptoms. These include:

  • Stress: Stress is a major trigger for digestive issues, thanks to the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis connects the brain and digestive system, where stress can impact your gut (think butterflies in your stomach), but your gut health can also affect your brain. 
  • Medications: Some medications, like antibiotics or antidepressants, can worsen IBS symptoms or cause changes in the GI microbiome.
  • Hormone fluctuations: Women often note increased symptoms during hormonal shifts throughout the month. Interestingly IBS also affects more women than men. 
  • Lack of exercise: Regular physical activity can help reduce IBS symptoms, especially for people with IBS-C, but a sedentary lifestyle may contribute to IBS.
  • Anxiety: Research suggests that people with IBS experience higher anxiety levels than the general population. 
  • Infections. Bacterial infections or food poisoning can disrupt the GI microbiome and trigger IBS symptoms (and may be a significant root cause).
  • Sleep disruptions. Poor sleep quality may trigger symptoms, but symptoms may also interrupt sleep, so it can be a vicious cycle.

Better Diet Choices To Treat Your IBS

There's no right way to eat with IBS, as each person's food triggers can differ. Starting with an elimination diet like the low FODMAP diet can be so helpful to find what foods trigger your symptoms and then build from there. 

The most crucial point to remember when following any kind of elimination diet is that the actual elimination phase, where you are significantly restricting foods, is meant to be short-term. Once you have identified your trigger foods, you can slowly add more foods to your diet. 

Just as there are foods that are more likely to trigger symptoms, there are also foods that are often well tolerated by people with IBS. Once again, you'll need to learn what works for your body, but some friendly foods may include: 

  • Lactose-free dairy products, especially yogurt, with added cultures for probiotics.
  • Low FODMAP fruit such as blueberries, mandarin, and kiwis.
  • Low FODMAP vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, and bok choy.
  • Protein sources like eggs, poultry, and fish.
  • Small amounts of healthy fats like olive oil and avocado oil.
  • Gluten-free grains and pasta made from quinoa, buckwheat, or rice.

4 Tips to Ease IBS Symptoms

  1. Manage your stress: Since stress can exacerbate IBS symptoms, finding effective ways to manage your stress levels is essential. Try relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation, and get outside in nature whenever possible.
  1. Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water is essential for maintaining digestive health and preventing constipation. Aim for at least eight glasses of water daily, and avoid sugary drinks and alcohol.
  1. Try probiotics: Research has suggested that probiotics can help improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by restoring the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut and reducing inflammation.
  1. Practice mindful eating: Mindful eating is about being present and aware of your food. Take time to taste, chew your food, and eat slowly, which can help reduce symptoms like bloating and discomfort. Additionally, avoid overeating by being mindful of portion sizes and stopping when you feel full.

Get Help and Relieve The Pain

If you've tried to pinpoint which foods are triggering your IBS symptoms and are still struggling to manage them, seeking professional help is essential. Your gastroenterologist or dietitian can provide tailored advice and support to help you manage your IBS (just make sure to find one specializing in GI health).

Learn More About How To Boost Your Gut Health with Signos' Expert Advice

The primary takeaway about IBS trigger foods is that each person may react to food differently. Determining which foods exacerbate your symptoms is the key to managing your IBS symptoms—and every person is unique. 

The Signos app can take personalization even further. Tracking your blood sugar response in real-time allows you to quickly identify which foods benefit your metabolic health and create a holistic approach to support gut health. 

Small dietary and lifestyle changes can help bring relief and make a big difference in your daily life. Signos also offers many articles and resources from exercise professionals, dietitians, and doctors on the blog, or you can find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz now.

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References

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About the author

Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.

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