When I was diagnosed with IBS, I didn’t anticipate that I would develop a much deeper understanding of myself through this lens. It has helped me make sense of some of the eating habits I’ve had my whole life and it has given me a reason to take them more seriously. To not write them off as quirks or oddities, but to consider them my body’s way of telling me what’s best. For years I ignored these signals because they didn’t conform to what I thought was a “normal” way for an adult to eat.
Every morning I wake up hungry. I always have. I have never been one to skip breakfast or even eat a late breakfast without having to have something small first thing. I eat very small meals (I’m talking child-sized portions sometimes) but I need to eat several times a day. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a problem with being too hungry. I’ve been carrying snacks with me wherever I go since middle school. I plan my day around meals - When is the next time I’ll be able to eat? What time do we plan to get dinner? So I know what I need to do to keep from feeling sick. When I was young my mom referred to this as being “overly hungry”. When I was too hungry for too long I felt sick and despite the hunger, I couldn’t bring myself to eat. Sometimes I’d get a headache, often I’d start shaking, occasionally I’d feel almost faint. It was an awful feeling getting to that point and I spent most of my days trying to avoid it.
I thought this would fade as I got older, as it had always been attributed to a fast metabolism. I figured as an adult, it wouldn’t be an issue. I was wrong. Since my diagnosis I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my body. To notice these signals and respond accordingly. I’ve embraced the habits that make my gut happy. Some are habits I’ve known my whole life, but others are new. These 4 simple changes in the way I eat have made a huge difference in my quality of life and trying some of them out may help your gut be happier too.
Eat Mindfully: Not too much, not too fast
Like many of the ways to manage IBS symptoms, this conventional wisdom would be good for anyone to practice, but for those of us with IBS the consequences of not doing this can be more severe. Really start to pay attention to your portion sizes and how you feel after a meal. Once you have a better idea of how much food is appropriate, commit to eating only what you need to satisfy your hunger.
Eating is not a race. Even when it’s tempting to eat quickly (perhaps it’s especially delicious or maybe you’re just very hungry) think about how taking a few more minutes to chew thoroughly and breathe normally during your meal could mean the difference between getting on with your day or feeling dense and experiencing symptoms. Chewing is the first step in digestion and if we aren’t doing it thoroughly enough we give the next steps in our digestive system more work.
Mindful eating is easier said than done because so often we eat on autopilot - while watching a show or scrolling through social media. We don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and changing that will take thoughtful commitment until it becomes a new habit. When starting out, put your phone out of reach and turn off notifications while you eat. Don’t watch or read anything. Enjoy the silence or have a meaningful conversation with someone while you’re sharing a meal. If you’re alone and don’t care much for the silence, put on some music before you put your phone down. (Just make sure you can’t receive notifications while the music plays.)
Mindful eating has helped me avoid feeling too full after a meal, not only because it stops me from overeating, but also because it keeps me from getting that stone-in-my-stomach feeling from eating too fast.
Eat outside the box
As I mentioned above, I had an idea in my head for how adults eat: 3 meals a day, maybe the occasional snack or just coffee until noon, if you’re truly a grown up. This has never really been an option for me. If I eat enough to get to the next meal time, I feel sick. Too heavy and too full and this lasts until I feel hungry again. There is no in between. I’ve always struggled to conform to the idea of 3 squares a day, but for years I tried to eat more at my meals to avoid snacking. (Snacking is often labeled as the enemy, but I’ve come to know it as a dear friend.) Since learning more about IBS I’ve found that listening to my body’s preferences is the best way to make my gut happy. Now I embrace the need to eat every few hours. I eat modest meals and snacks throughout the day and this helps me avoid feeling sick or getting shaky. I never get that overly hungry feeling anymore. I don’t feel like eating only 3 times per day is some requirement that I’m failing. My body is different and I have different needs.
For me, this is what works. Eating a small amount of food every few hours. I make sure to always have snacks I can eat or sometimes I just split a meal in half. I make my lunch and immediately put half in a container to reheat and eat in a couple hours when I will inevitably be hungry again.
Some IBS sufferers have found that they feel too sick to eat first thing in the morning. This is okay too. Adjust your habits and expectations to meet your body’s needs, not the other way around. The important thing is that we listen to what our bodies are telling us. If this is you, consider Intermittent Fasting. Or instead of eating breakfast, drink it: have a smoothie or protein shake.
Take your nourishment needs seriously
Given that I need to eat on the same schedule as an infant, I’ve often felt embarrassed about this. Not to mention that if anyone ever asked me why I snack so much, I’d have to have the IBS talk. I’ve learned to embrace the IBS explanation, but before I had I was ashamed to divulge all of this information, especially to colleagues.
I would enter an unhealthy cycle of snacking too late or too quickly to avoid snacking during a meeting, risking feeling sick by the time I could actually get some food, and then likely eating it too quickly because I was desperate. And am I focused on the meeting if all I can think about is how awful I’m feeling or how I can’t wait to get back to my office and have a yogurt? No way! If a meeting coincides with my regular snack time now, I make sure to take a snack with me. I pick the least interruptive snack I can so that I’m not distracting anyone else, but I’ve decided to just own my needs. If anyone asks I say, “I have IBS and if I don’t eat when I feel hungry I start to feel sick.” It’s taken me time to feel confident in saying this, but once I started offering this simple explanation I realized there was no need to feel embarrassed. This is the same as needing glasses to see. No one is going to tell you not to put on your glasses to be able to see the presentation because it might be distracting to others. This is what I need to do to function properly, feel well, and stay focused and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The other side of this is knowing when not to eat and having the confidence to say no to things you can’t have. Maybe someone offers you food at a meeting or you’re visiting a friend and she made a hummus or dip. It can be difficult to say no in these scenarios. No one wants to be rude or offensive, right? Change your interpretation of what this actually is. You’re not being rude. You’re just being honest and taking your own needs seriously. Would you accept a peanut butter cookie if you had a nut allergy? No! And no one would be offended. This is no different, it’s just less common to be open about it. Simply say, “No thank you. I have IBS and am trying to be more careful about what I eat to keep my gut happy”. The more we all normalize this, the easier it will be for us to keep ourselves healthy and symptom free.
Always have food you can eat within reach
My final tip is to always have food on hand that you know is safe. Whether you’re like me and need to eat frequently or maybe just find yourself out and about a lot where safe food isn’t guaranteed, it’s never a bad idea to have a few of these items stashed away. Keep them in your office, your purse or backpack, your gym bag, your car… keep them wherever it makes sense for you, but keep them on hand for when hunger strikes. These suggestions are all Low FODMAP so that no matter where you are on the diet you have a snack you can eat or even after you’ve moved onto personalization, you know you have something safe to fall back on.
- Check ingredients to be sure nothing will cause an issue if you get the flavored kind
- If you’re on the Low FODMAP elimination or reintroduction phases stick to plain or lightly salted
PB or almond butter
- PB is Low FODMAP at 50g (2 Tbs)
- Almond butter is Low FODMAP at 20g (1 TB)
- Check ingredients to be sure nothing will cause an issue
- If you’re on the Low FODMAP elimination or reintroduction phases stick to plain or lightly salted
- Bonus tip: You can top this with a little nutritional yeast to add a nice savory flavor
Mandarin oranges - up to 125g (about 2) is Low FODMAP
Grapes - Low FODMAP at 150g (1 cup)
GoMacro bars - These are great to throw in a bag to have a quick non-perishable snack at the ready. You can filter by Low FODMAP flavors on their website!
Mary's Gone Crackers Super Seed (original flavor)
Gouda, Manchego, Cheddar, goat, Swiss, Havarti, etc. (40g serving is Low FODMAP)
Pumpkin seeds (23g or 2 Tbs)
Almonds (12g or 10 nuts)
Peanuts (28g or 32 nuts)
Walnuts (30g or 10 nut halves)
Brazil nuts (40g or 10 nuts)
These simple changes to my eating habits have made a huge difference for my gut health and for my mental health as well. It can take some time to adjust to more actively thinking about what we put into our bodies - and more importantly how and when - but these changes will soon become second nature and the benefits you’ll reap will outweigh the effort you have to put in to establish new and healthier habits for yourself.
You owe it to yourself to listen to your body and take its signals seriously. If I hadn’t tried to ignore or tamp down these signals for most of my life, I might’ve been able to better manage my symptoms before I was even diagnosed. My hope is that you take the time now to listen to your body, throw out conventional expectations, and prioritize your wellbeing. You should also consider having this kind of conversation with your doctor or dietician, as they will have a more complete recommendation for you since they know you.