Anyone who has ever casually complained about stomach pain to a friend has probably gotten some questionable dietary advice. Throw in the fact that you suffer from IBS or acid reflux, and suddenly your friend transforms from your former college roommate to an unlicensed nutritionist with a lot to tell you.
In fact, it seems like everyone has an opinion on going vegan, or trying the keto diet, or cutting out gluten. But how do you know what’s actually the right choice for you and your digestive symptoms?
There are a few different ways to figure it out, but the first step is understanding what your options are and what all these recommended diets are really about.
We’ve put together a guide to help you navigate this learning process. Just keep in mind that you should always talk to a healthcare professional before making any major changes to your routine.
What to eat: Foods that are low in acid such as soy, beans, lentils, millet, quinoa, yogurt, milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
What to avoid: Acidic foods like cheese, fish, brown rice, oat flakes, granola, and processed foods (especially meats).
How it helps: This diet is based on the theory that by lowering the overall level of acid in your body (also called its pH level), you can reduce your risk of getting cancer. However, while studies have shown that cancer cells love acidic environments, there’s actually no way to control your body’s pH level through your diet. That said, low acid foods do tend to be good for you, so this is still a relatively healthy diet to follow (even if it won’t make your body immune to cancer).
The risks: This diet calls for eating certain fruits that are actually high in acid but theoretically reduce your pH level as you digest them. These fruits—like oranges, apples, limes, and tomatoes—are common acid reflux triggers, so steer clear if you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What to eat: Tomatoes, leafy greens, berries, and fatty fish.
What to avoid: Red meat, high-sugar foods, fried foods, and refined carbohydrates (carbs that’ve been processed that they’ve lost all of their nutritional value, such as pizza dough and white rice).
How it helps: An anti-inflammatory diet restricts foods that cause inflammation. Many of those foods also tend to be triggers for heartburn, indigestion, and stomachaches.
The risks: While this diet can reduce those symptoms, it also might require you to cut back on major food groups that help maintain your overall nutrition.
What to eat: Everything you normally would—except for one food or drink you suspect may be behind your digestive symptoms.
What to avoid: Unlike the other diets on this list, this one doesn’t specify what you should cut out. You’re in the driver’s seat—just be sure to only choose one food at a time.
How it helps: This diet is often the first recommendation a gastroenterologist will make after you’ve been diagnosed with a digestive condition. That’s because the purpose of this diet is to help identify the triggers that might be causing your symptoms. By cutting out one food or drink at a time and monitoring the results, you and your doctor can gradually determine the best diet for you.
The risks: There are virtually no risks to trying out this diet (as long as you don’t eliminate water). Just keep in mind that the goal isn’t to reduce how much you eat overall, just to find and cut out your triggers—so, if you choose to remove something from your diet, you may want to find a healthier alternative for yourself. That way, you’re eating better, not less.
What to eat: Meat, leafy greens, legumes, lentils, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
What to avoid: All products that contain gluten. But what is gluten? It’s a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that pops up in many foods, such as cereals, pasta, baked goods, and of course, bread. You might be surprised where else you can find gluten, like in soy sauce, sausages, the coatings of certain medications and supplements, and meat substitutes like veggie burgers.
How it helps: A gluten allergy or sensitivity can cause digestive discomfort or pain, so cutting it out can remove the source of that discomfort and pain.
The risks: Whole grains are a major source of fiber—and fiber is one of the best ways to combat constipation. So if you’re cutting wheat, rye, and barley out of your diet, then you’ll want to make sure you’re getting your grains elsewhere. Quinoa, brown rice, and corn are all gluten-free and full of fiber.
What to eat: Whatever you want—but only at certain designated periods of the day or week.
What to avoid: Everything during your fasting periods, and nothing the rest of the time.
How it helps: When you go long enough without eating, your body uses up all the calories it got from your last meal and starts burning through your fat to give you energy (that’s known as “metabolic switching”). Intermittent fasting makes sure that your body does that on a regular basis, which, as you might guess, can be helpful for weight management. Research shows that this diet can also benefit your memory, blood pressure, and even athletic endurance.
The risks: Intermittent fasting can have great benefits if you do it right, but it can be downright unsafe if you don’t. If you want to try it, work out a plan with your healthcare provider to make sure you’re setting a healthy eating schedule. "I don't recommend intermittent fasting to my patients on a regular basis,” says Evens Medical Director Dr. Heather Gerst. “Anyone considering trying it should have a thorough conversation with their doctor beforehand." Children, pregnant people, and anyone with a history of eating disorders shouldn’t try intermittent fasting.
What to eat: Low-carb, high-fat foods with a moderate amount of protein such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and healthy oils.
What to avoid: Grains, starches, beans, legumes, and alcohol.
How it helps: As you digest certain carbs, the bacteria in your gut produce extra gas. That means that a low-carb diet like this one can help reduce gas and indigestion.
The risks: As you may know, cutting out fiber can cause constipation. In addition, there are concerns that the ketogenic overall is nutrient deficient.
What to eat: Poultry, meat, eggs, fish, and non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli.
What to avoid: Grains, starches, and high-sugar foods.
How it helps: Avoiding highly processed and sugar-filled foods can ease general abdominal discomfort and reduce heartburn.
The risks: Decreasing your carbohydrate intake cuts calories, which may cause weakness or fatigue if your daily caloric needs are not met. In addition, limiting carbs that are high in fiber, such as grains and legumes, can lead to constipation and nutrient deficiency. Your brain prefers carbohydrates as its main source of fuel.
What to eat: When you start learning about the FODMAP diet, you’ll hear people say “low FODMAP” and “high FODMAP.” Before we get into “high” and “low,” let’s talk F.O.D.M.A.P. The acronym stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols, which describes a certain type of carb that can irritate the gut. Low FODMAP foods include eggs, meat, almond milk, rice, oats, and berries.
What to avoid: High FODMAP foods include garlic, onions, beans, lentils, honey, dairy, sweeteners like agave nectar and high-fructose corn syrup, and wheat (yes, that means bread, pasta, cereal, and pastries). While you shouldn’t cut fruits and vegetables out of your diet entirely, some of them are high FODMAP, like apples, cherries, peaches, watermelon, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and mushrooms. You can find a complete list of high and low FODMAP foods here.
How it helps: Gastroenterologists consider the low FODMAP diet a great choice for people who suffer from IBS. Clinical studies confirm that it can help control symptoms of the condition and make it easier to live a pain-free life.
The risks: The FODMAP diet is exceptionally restrictive during the first phase (known as the elimination phase). Working with a doctor or dietician can ensure your diet gives you the nutrition you need to stay healthy.
What to eat: Vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, whole grains, beans, eggs, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocado.
What to avoid: Processed foods, red meat, desserts, and dairy (although occasional low-fat yogurt is fine).
How it helps: This diet is clinically-proven to boost heart health and life expectancy. That’s why it’s recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the World Health Organization. It can also be easier to follow than other diets because it focuses on what you can eat, rather than what you can’t.
The risks: Few risks come along with this healthy way of eating, but one important thing to note is that you can’t get the benefits of the whole diet just by adding a few of the foods to your plate. Eating more fish or nuts probably won’t hurt you, but unless you’re cutting out red meat and sweets too it won’t do you as much good.
What to eat: Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, seitan, and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley, and farro.
What to avoid: All animal-derived products including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.
How it helps: In addition to the benefits of the vegetarian diet, a vegan diet also reduces symptoms of dairy sensitivity such as bloating and gas.
The risks: Like vegetarians, vegans can unintentionally neglect their protein intake. Luckily, there are plenty of non-animal sources of the nutrient, such as tofu, nuts, seeds, beans, and nut butters.
What to eat: Plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and tofu, plus dairy and eggs.
What to avoid: Meat, poultry, and fish.
How it helps: A diet with complex carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains often reduces symptoms of GERD, such as heartburn and indigestion. In addition, complex carbs have more nutrients than simple carbs because they’re high in fiber, which is very important if you struggle with constipation. They’re also beneficial for good bacteria that live in your gut. Simple carbs, on the other hand, include many dairy-based foods with refined sugar (ice cream, cakes, pastries, soda, etc.) that can irritate the gut.
The risks: Without meat and fish, some people can find it tough to get enough protein into their diets. (You should aim to consume 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day.) Get more beans, lentils, eggs, yogurt, and cheese onto your plate to keep your protein levels optimal.
Finding the right diet for you can be a process, but feeling better will be worth it. The most important step is to track how you feel after you eat certain foods so you can identify the triggers that upset your stomach.
That said, make sure you talk to your doctor before making any big changes to your current diet to ensure your nutritional needs are always being met and that you’re making the changes that are right for you and your body.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely on the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash