A hand holds a very small ice cream cone with a normal-sized cherry on top. Also featured is a toilet, milkshake mixer, old-fashioned diner, and a roll of toilet paper.

IBS and Ice Cream

About 15 years ago, when I was interning at an environmental office in Washington, DC, my fellow interns and I all went to Potbelly's after training. They were all excited to get milkshakes and one noted that the eatery had an option for what they called "skinnies," which were milkshakes made with skim milk instead of whole milk. And if I am remembering correctly, they also came in sizes.

I found myself intrigued. I had IBS for over a half-decade by that point and of all the things I missed the most, milkshakes were at the top (along with coffee). Milkshakes and malteds had been a daily staple of my diet throughout my childhood and most of my teen years (as I mentioned in another post, my grandmother had a malt-making machine and so we made them at home and it was probably my only real luxury as a kid who grew up poor).

In college, I didn't have milkshakes as often the first 2 years as I was no longer at home but did occasionally treat myself a few times a month at a diner, cafe or parlor. But I remember very explicitly one night early on in my junior year of college coming home from a late-night excursion to a diner where I had had a shake and barely making it to the bathroom and being besieged by severe diarrhea. That was the beginning of my IBS journey.

Learning my IBS triggers

Over time, I realized at least one of the triggers in the milkshakes was the chocolate (I loved black and white milkshakes that mixed up either chocolate and vanilla ice cream OR vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup). So, I sadly gave up those kinds of milkshakes and only had vanilla or other types without chocolate. However, I found that I still sometimes ran into trouble. Sometimes it even seemed the kind of ice cream brands made a difference in whether I would get sick afterward.

To go back to the DC scene, I did get a "skinny" milkshake and I got the smallest size (which was really the size of a standard coffee cup). I thought that would be innocuous enough since I noticed another thing that flared me about milkshakes were the fat and I noted the milkshakes that I got in the ice cream parlor near my then-home – which they made with skim milk – didn't really bother my IBS. But this skinny milkshake, for whatever reason, did bother my IBS. And I had to deal with the embarrassing scenario of getting sick at work. I wound up using the bathroom in the basement of the building to avoid running into co-workers, which was 6 flights down. But I realized I would never take such a gamble while at work or out and about again.

Yet another time, I remember only about 6 years ago, in my mid-30s, being in Cambridge, Massachusettes to see a friend perform at a music show and I decided to get a milkshake at a vegan diner. I sometimes made myself vegan milkshakes at home and they seemed significantly less likely to instigate my IBS. So I thought I was in the clear. But not all vegan milkshakes are alike. The ones I made from home were made from lower-fat varieties of vegan milk and ice cream. But this milkshake was made with ice cream and milk made from coconut. While it was delicious, it was also very rich and fatty, which is probably why by the time I made it home less than an hour later, I had to head straight for the bathroom.

Homemade milkshakes only (for me)

So, unfortunately, for the most part, milkshakes are out of my life and when/if I do have them, they are mostly homemade, where I can control and have full knowledge of all of the ingredients. Here's what I have learned:

Low fat ice cream is best

I tend to opt for vegan ice creams made of almond milk or if coconut milk, I try to get low fat if possible. If I get ice cream made of real dairy, I again try to opt for low fat, lactose-free and definitely only get organic or hormone-free dairy and steer clear of certain things that have other IBS triggers like coffee or chocolate.

More tips:

  • The milk I use is always vegan and low fat. Usually, it's always almond or rice milk and it's always organic (I do NOT use coconut milk).
  • I don't use chocolate syrup or powder.
  • I make myself a small helping. I call them "mini-milkshakes."
  • It's a rare treat. Not a daily or even weekly occurrence, and I sometimes go months without it.
  • I avoid having it right before or during my period.

Finding my way around ice cream issues

Also, the truth is I find I prefer ice cream cones nowadays to a milkshake. In this way, I find a small scoop of something on a cake cone as long as I am not in a flare, PMSing, or menstruating is relatively benign. And when I say small, I mean small. I am the only one in line who will ask them to shave some ice cream off the scoop and I make it clear I can't have too much dairy. It lets me still enjoy ice cream while not incurring the repercussions. While I used to want ice cream all year long, I find now I usually only crave it during the warmer months.

Another tip: I find sometimes taking a Lactaid tablet or enzyme-containing lactase before or with the ice cream can also act as extra protection as it aids in the digestion of dairy.

Have you had to give up ice cream due to IBS? Or have you learned ways to moderate or only eat certain brands or alternatives that still allow you to indulge without bothering your IBS? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below!

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