In many ways, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) remains a mystery. Unlike most diseases, there is no single set of symptoms, causes, or method of diagnosing it. Even the exact cause of IBS is unknown. Studies often focus on the factors that different people with IBS have in common. One of these is diet and the types of foods that exacerbate symptoms.

Although most of the links between food and symptoms are still based on theory rather than fact, the people who have endured the symptoms have recognized the connection for many years. Without input from patients, we might still be in the dark about common dietary triggers that make symptoms worse. Although these triggers vary among sufferers, there is a select group of foods that are more likely to cause problems than others. Things like chocolate, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners are recognized food triggers, but recent research indicates that ultra-processed foods are a likely cause as well.

From Unprocessed to Ultra-Processed


Anything that you do to alter a food from its natural state is considered processing. This includes canning, freezing, cooking, fermenting, pickling, and more. Sometimes food is processed to retain its nutritional value and to make it last longer. These foods may be categorized as “minimally processed,” and they are no worse for you than they would be if they were raw or fresh. The only difference is that the process may slightly reduce the nutritional value of the foods, especially with the use of high levels of heat, light, or oxygen.

Ultra-processed foods are those on the other end of the spectrum. Not only have they been processed by one or more of these means, but they also include multiple ingredients and additives that mean trouble for IBS sufferers. Some additives are used to enhance the flavor, color, or texture, of the food. The same ingredients that make these foods so appealing also make them more dangerous to anyone’s overall health. Food additives are major contributors to obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Eating a diet high in processed foods has also been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

If you have IBS, any portion of your diet that is made up of processed foods can increase your symptoms in frequency and severity. Some of the most popular ultra-processed foods sold today include:

  • Potato Chips
  • Sodas
  • Chicken Nuggets
  • Cakes and Donuts
  • Breads and Buns
  • Sweetened Fruit Juice
  • Sandwich Meats
  • Instant Soup

Processed Foods Versus Fast Foods


It isn’t surprising that many of the fast foods America lives on are also processed foods. You probably already know that the chicken nuggets and burgers sold under the golden arches are packed with saturated fat. What you may not realize is that they also contain additives like artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors.

Another problem with fast food is that you can’t read the list of ingredients. When you swing by your favorite fast food chain on your way home from work, you might not be thinking about the sugar, salt, and fat in your food. After all, processed foods in the grocery and at fast food restaurants are packaged to sell. They are also formulated to make you overeat. The food you crave might contain the ingredients that make your IBS symptoms worse.

Everyone wants to get the most nutrition possible from the foods they eat without adding harmful ingredients or unnecessary calories to their diet. For people with IBS, accomplishing this simple goal is a lot more challenging. Eating foods that trigger symptoms such as diarrhea and early satiety make it impossible to get the nutrition you need for good health. Including ultra-processed foods in your diet at any level can only make your situation worse.

What Can I Do?


One way that people with IBS avoid food triggers and the additives in processed foods is by following a low FODMAP diet. This diet helps you avoid carbohydrates that are more difficult to digest as well as the processed foods that often exacerbate IBS symptoms. Work with your gastroenterologist to decide if a FODMAP diet is a good choice for you. After eliminating foods that contain FODMAPs for a period of time, you may be able to re-introduce some of these foods back into your diet gradually. This will help you identify those that act as triggers for your IBS symptoms and those that don’t. If you need help managing IBS symptoms, contact Carolina Digestive Health Associates for an appointment today. We are here to provide you with the services and the guidance you need to lessen the impact of IBS symptoms on your life.