Diarrhea is a common bowel problem that is acute most of the time. It lasts for a a few days and is accompanied by other unpleasant symptoms but with proper management, there is usually no significant health risk. Diarrhea can be caused by certain foods but there is no reason not to eat when diarrhea exists. In fact eating can help with recovery and prevent complications of diarrhea but it is important to know which foods to eat and avoid.
How Foods Cause Diarrhea?
There are several reasons why food can cause diarrhea but these mechanisms do not apply to all foods. Some of these foods are more likely to cause diarrhea than others.
Food and water may serve as medium whereby germs and toxins are carried into the body. This is seen with conditions like food poisoning. Viruses, bacteria and protozoa may enter the body with food where it then causes gastrointestinal inflammation and diarrhea. The toxins of these germs can have the same effect. Sometimes the toxins may not be produced by germs but from other sources.
Some foods cannot be properly digested and absorbed by the body. Usually specific nutrients are the problem rather than an entire food, as is the case with lactose intolerance where the body cannot digest the milk sugar known as lactose. Similarly some nutrients may not be absorbed because the gut is diseased, damaged or malfunctioning. These nutrients can then affect water content in the bowels and lead to diarrhea.
Another way some foods may lead to diarrhea is that it irritates the bowel or triggers an allergic reaction in the bowels. The substances within these foods that may cause this irritation or allergy may not necessarily be toxic. However, in large quantities or in people with sensitivity to these substances, the inflammation of the bowel can then result in symptoms like diarrhea. For example, in celiac disease where gluten is a problem.
Sometimes foods may serve as triggers for certain conditions. For example, certain spices and preservatives in some foods may worsen irritable bowel syndrome and lead to diarrhea. There may be individual sensitivity to different substances in different foods. However, these foods are not the cause of the diarrhea.
How Foods Help Diarhea?
Contrary to popular belief, a liquid diet is not necessary for diarrhea if there is no accompanying vomiting. In fact, food can be beneficial for diarrhea.
Fiber can be helpful in diarrhea, just as it can be helpful for the other extreme – constipation. Foods rich in fiber or fiber supplements can absorb excess water in the bowels. This will help give the stool a more solid consistency. However, excessive fiber can sometimes have the opposite effect and it is therefore important to moderate fiber intake for diarrhea.
Certain foods like live culture yogurt can also help with diarrhea as it contains microbes that are necessary for bowel health. These microbes, also known as the normal intestinal flora, lives in the large bowels where it helps with the formation of normal stool. These microbes are often disrupted and destroyed by the conditions that lead to diarrhea. It can be quickly replenished with foods rich in these microbes.
Rehydration refers to the replenishment of fluid lost in diarrheal stool, vomiting and sweating. Most of the time rehydration is with fluids like oral rehydration solutions which have the optimal mix of water and electrolytes to prevent dehydration. However, food also plays a role. Food has water within it as well as the various electrolytes which are necessary for proper hydration.
Read more on how to stop diarrhea.
List of Foods to Avoid
The following foods and beverages should be avoided while diarrhea is present. If it has to be consumed then it is important to only have small amounts.
- Caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, cola)
- Dairy (be selective)
- Dried fruits (in large amounts)
- Fatty and greasy foods
- Gassy foods like beans, cabbage and cauliflower.
- Gum and candy
- Processed foods
- Raw or undercooked meat
- Sodas including diet sodas
- Sugary foods and drinks
- Uncooked vegetables and fruits that are not washed with clean water.
Certain foods like dairy may not always be a problem and some dairy like yogurt can be helpful for diarrhea. However, secondary lactose intolerance is a condition that may arise temporarily in some people who suffer with severe diarrhea, even without there being any previous history of lactose intolerance.
List of Foods to Eat
The following foods and beverages can be consumed and may even be helpful for diarrhea. However, if the diarrhea worsens after consuming these foods then it should be avoided, at least until the diarrhea resolves.
- Apples and applesauce.
- Bread (toasted)
- Crackers (plain)
- Rice (unseasoned)
- Meat (lean), fully cooked without oil or other grease.
- Fruit, peeled (in small to moderate quantities)
- Vegetables (thoroughly washed and cooked with minimal butter or oil)
It is important to note that an excessive amount of the foods above may not be helpful and can even worsen diarrhea. Foods like yogurt should be stopped immediately if it appears to trigger or worsen diarrhea.
Read more about FODMAP diet.
Dietary Tips for Diarrhea
- Never stop eating solid food when diarrhea is present, unless there is vomiting that hampers eating. A healthy and balanced diet can help to prevent deficiencies and complications from diarrhea.
- Eat small bland meals several times a day. Avoid large meals that may irritate the digestive tract and even worsen diarrhea.
- Opt for foods rich in fiber but ensure that the fiber intake is not excessively high as this can worsen diarrhea. Speak to a doctor or pharmacist about appropriate fiber supplements.
- Live culture yogurt can be beneficial but must be consumed in moderation. It is often better to eat small amounts of yogurt at a time.
- Ensure that water for drinking, cooking and preparing foods is clean. Water should be boiled if there is uncertainty about its source or cleanliness.
- Eat meals slowly and chew every bit thoroughy. Eating too fast can increase air swallowing (aerophagia) which can contribute to symptoms like excessive belching. Without breaking down food thoroughly, digestion and absorption can be hampered which may further worsen diarrhea.