Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease which causes swelling within the digestive tract that can lead to uncomfortable symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and fatigue, per the Mayo Clinic. Diet cannot cause or treat inflammatory bowel diseases but it can help tame or trigger symptoms.
“Inflammatory bowel diseases aren’t something you can cure with diet — you need to have a healthcare team treating these,” registered dietitian Kendra Weekley told Cleveland Health Clinic. “But if you’re having a flare-up, these are some foods you might want to avoid or limit to lessen the severity and frequency of your symptoms.”
During Crohn’s or inflammatory bowel disease flare ups, what you eat can trigger or worsen symptoms. Watching what you eat and how it impacts your body can help you feel better throughout a flare-up period.
It is important to note that not everyone with an inflammatory bowel disease is triggered by the same foods. Though the foods listed below are common triggers, listen to your own body to determine what foods are healthy for you.
1. Dairy products
It is common for individuals suffering from an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s to have a difficult time digesting dairy products. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that high-fat dairy products were the food most frequently reported for worsening Crohn’s symptoms.
“In some cases of Crohn’s, inflammation in the small intestine impairs lactase activity and causes lactose intolerance,” Arielle Leben, RD, of NYU Langone’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, told Women’s Health.
For some, it may be advantageous to follow a lactose-free diet during flare-up periods but many people with an inflammatory bowel disease are OK to eat low-fat dairy products, per Cleveland Health Clinic.
2. Caffeine and carbonated drinks
Caffeinated beverages such as soda, coffee, tea and energy drinks can worsen diarrhea — a common symptom during Crohn’s flare ups. Carbonated drinks like sparkling water and soda have a tendency to increase gas and might not be a great option during a flare up.
“Caffeine increases the wave-like motion of the GI tract, which is what propels waste through the system,” Weekley told Cleveland Health Clinic. “If you tend to have diarrhea with your Crohn’s flare, caffeine may make your symptoms worse.”
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation recommends avoiding sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners such as “sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, sucralose, aspartame, saccharin,” which could trigger symptoms.
3. Uncooked vegetables
Many vegetables have high fiber content, which can make them difficult for the body to digest during a flare up, per Medical New Today. Some veggies to consider limiting include: cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, beets, spinach and corn.
“Many patients with Crohn’s disease suffer from strictures, or narrowings within the intestines that develop when chronic inflammation leads to scarring,” gastroenterologist Jason Rubinov explained to Women’s Health. “As a result, (certain) high-fiber foods have a difficult time moving through these narrowed areas, which can lead to worsening of symptoms and blockages.”
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation suggests cooking veggies or blending them into a smoothie to make them easier to digest.
4. Spicy foods
A 2013 survey reports that spicy foods are one of the top dietary triggers in people with an inflammatory bowel disease. It may be advantageous to avoid spices such as: black pepper, jalapeño, chili pepper, wasabi, cayenne pepper, garlic and paprika, per Healthline.
According to preliminary studies, the spice turmeric — which contains curcumin — may actually tame flare ups in those with Crohn’s.
5. Added sugars
Sugary foods like cookies, syrup and candy are other common trigger foods, reports the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. Research shows a high-sugar diet causes inflammation throughout the body, which can exacerbate symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.
“Sugars are carbohydrates that pull water into the gut, which can cause diarrhea,” Rubinov told Women’s Health. “And, when broken down, many of these sugars are fermentable, which leads to increased bloating and gas symptoms.”
Following a gluten-free diet is beneficial for many people suffering from Crohn’s disease, a 2020 review notes.
“In cross-sectional studies nearly one-third of (inflammatory bowel syndrome) patients report a diagnosis of (non-celiac gluten sensitivity), and many follow a (gluten-free diet),” the review reports. “Several cross-sectional reports suggest that a gluten-free diet may improve symptoms in inflammatory bowel syndrome patients.”
Many people with an inflammatory bowel disease can consume gluten without an issues, although roughly two-thirds of those with an inflammatory bowel disease who try a gluten-free diet report an improvement in symptoms, reports Cedars-Sinai newsroom.