FODMAPs: Why You Should Consider Cutting Back (Temporarily)

Lydia Noyes
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FODMAPs: Why You Should Consider Cutting Back (Temporarily)

Are you dealing with debilitating digestive problems that don’t seem to improve no matter what diet you try out? Maybe you’ve tried committing to the ketogenic diet or even went on the paleo path for a few months with unimpressive results. While these diets can do wonders for your health, they don’t address one of the root causes of intestinal distress- a high FODMAPs diet.

Learning what these compounds are and taking steps to avoid them in your diet (even temporarily) can make a massive difference for your health. But what are FODMAPs, and which foods can you find them in? This article will help you understand the details.

What is FODMAP?

FODMAP is an acronym that stands for ‘Fermentable Oligo Di-and-Monosaccharides and Polyols.’ To put things more simply, FODMAPs are a broad category of sugar-based carbohydrates like glucose, fructose, and lactose that ferment easily but are a struggle for your digestive system to fully absorb.

Most FODMAPS fall into the following groups:

  • Oligosaccharides: This category includes carbs that contain fructans (fructo-oligosaccharides and inulin) and galacto-oligosaccharides, and they can be found in rye, wheat, and numerous fruits, vegetables and legumes.
  • Disaccharides: Mainly consisting of foods that contain lactose, disaccharides can be found in milk, soft cheeses, and most other dairy products.
  • Monosaccharides: Fructose fits in this category, and familiar foods with monosaccharides include agave, honey, and most fruits.
  • Polyols: A category of carbs that can contain sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol, polyols are found in fruits, vegetables, and many sweeteners.

As this list indicates, these carbohydrates are naturally present in numerous foods like fruits, vegetables and other forms of fiber, but they are also added to many processed foods to improve their texture. FODMAPs are so prevalent in our diets today that many people aren’t even aware that they are sensitive to them. If you’re forever dealing with a bloated belly and other digestive problems, an undiagnosed sensitivity to FODMAPs might be the problem.

Common FODMAP Problems

It’s crucial to note that there’s nothing hazardous about eating FODMAPs. Most people can digest these carbohydrates without a problem, and they are present in dozens of foods that are considered healthy. However, some people are more sensitive to their effects than others. As an example, studies show that there is a connection between FODMAPs and dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). One study found that over three-quarters of people with IBS experienced improvements in their symptoms when they followed a low-FODMAP diet.

If you’re in the group whose system reacts when you consume FODMAPs, there are two primary ways that they can trigger digestive problems: fermentation by gut bacteria and drawing fluid into your intestine.

FODMAPs are considered “osmotically active,” which means that they pull water into your intestines by taking it from the rest of your body. For those with high levels of sensitivity, this can trigger unpleasant side effects like bloating or diarrhea.

Likewise, your body relies on enzymes to break down most carbohydrates so that they can be absorbed through your intestinal wall. However, your system doesn’t have enzymes available to break down every FODMAP, which means that some travel through your small intestine and into the large intestine without entirely breaking down. There, the remaining carbohydrates are fermented by billions of gut bacteria. These bacteria excrete gas in the process, which leads to stomach pain, bloating, and either diarrhea or constipation.

A sign that you’re affected by FODMAPs is that you experience abdominal discomfort within 30 minutes and two hours of eating foods that contain them. If you’re ready to find relief, it’s time to try following a low-FODMAP diet.

How to Follow a Low-FODMAP Diet

Any amount of intestinal discomfort is more than you should have to deal with, but the good news is that you can fix your FODMAP sensitivity issues by temporarily removing them from your diet. Best of all, this diet often acts as a long-term fix, even if you add the same foods back to your diet afterward.

As the name implies, a low-FODMAP diet means you need to cut out as many foods with FODMAP compounds as you can from your diet so that your digestive system can heal and not be as sensitive to them. Some of the foods to pay special attention to include gluten, peanuts, unfermented soy, most fruits and sweeteners, and vegetables in the nightshade family.

Dairy is a tricky topic to deal with on a low-FODMAP diet, as sensitivity levels can vary considerably. As a general rule, it’s best to eliminate all soft cheeses and yogurt from your diet, though many people can tolerate hard cheeses like cheddar or provolone. See what works for you, and adjust your strategy if necessary.

Feeling confused? Check out this resource at IBSdiets.org to see a comprehensive chart of what you can and can’t eat.

Best Tips for Low-FODMAP Diet Success

If you’re struggling to know where to begin to cut more FODMAPs from your life, these tips will give you the structure you need to get started.

  • Focus on Going “Low” FODMAPs not “No” FOMAPs: Cutting every source of FODMAPs from your diet would lead to potentially severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as most can be found in healthy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. For this reason, your goal should be to cut your consumption to a serving that works for you, not to eliminate them altogether.
  • Going Gluten-Free is Optional: Following a low-FODMAP diet will naturally limit your gluten intake because you won’t be eating as much fructan-filled wheat bread, but there’s no reason to give up wheat products entirely. For example, sourdough bread and spelt qualify as low-FODMAP, even though they contain gluten.
  • Spices aren’t Always Safe: A few (like onion powder or garlic powder) contain FODMAPs. Skip them!
  • FODMAPs are Water-Soluble: In other words, cooking soup with onions and then removing the onions from the broth is a no go, as the compounds that trigger your stomach issues are contained within it.
  • Have an End Date In Mind: A low-FODMAP diet will likely feel restrictive, and that’s because it is. For this reason (and others we’ll dive into soon) it’s best not to follow it for more than a few months at a time, and that you finish off the last few weeks of the diet by slowly reintroducing FODMAP foods into your meals.

Still unclear about what you need to do? It’s best to make an appointment with a FODMAP-knowledgeable specialist so that you can have a medical expert guiding and monitoring your progress.

How to End a Low-FODMAPs Diet

Your overall goal by following a low-FODMAP diet is to give your digestive system enough of a break that it can repair your intestinal lining, fight off pathogens that are the source of your problems, and improve the digestive process for all food types. For this reason, most people follow the plan for fewer than three months, and they slowly introduce FODMAP foods into their diet for the last few weeks.

How can you tell when you should end your FODMAP restrictions? Your symptoms are the cue. Once you start noticing a significant drop in your symptoms you can pick one FODMAP subgroup at a time to slowly reintroduce back into your diet. This lets you assess its effect on your digestive system independent of other factors. For best results, start with small food samples and slowly increase the quantity until you can confirm whether or not it’s irritating your intestines. Once one food type passes, move on to the next.

Note: If you want to eliminate the trial and error elimination process, consider trying a home food sensitivity test like Everlywell. The results might not be as accurate as what you’d receive from your doctor, but they offer a good starting point for understanding your own digestion.

This elimination diet (or home test) will give you a sense of how you respond to FODMAP foods, and you can adjust your diet accordingly. Your long-term goal should be to develop a diet that consists of a wide range of healthy foods you can consume without feeling sick.

Are There Concerns with Going on a Low-FODMAP Diet?

Many people will benefit from limiting their FODMAP intake, but this short-term eating strategy isn’t for everyone, and there some reasons to be cautious before beginning.

First, following the diet improperly can be restrictive to the point that you can suffer adverse health effects, like nutrition deficiencies. That’s because high-fiber, vitamin, and mineral rich foods tend to be high in FODMAPs. You can reduce your risk by supplementing your diet with lots of low-FODMAP fiber like spinach, strawberries, brown rice, oats, and gluten-free bread. You should also pay attention to your calcium levels and drink calcium-fortified nut and rice milk if you’re cutting out dairy.

Second, because the diet limits the variety of your diet, it can cut down on the diversity of your gut bacteria. Strive to keep a broad range of foods in your meals during the elimination phase so that you don’t experience unintended digestive consequences, and limit each low-FODMAP period to a few months at a time.

The low-FODMAP diet is far from a food fad. Instead, it has been rigorously studied and shows impressive benefits for improving your health- so long as you follow it correctly. However, not everyone responds to the diet the same way, and a few people experience extreme consequences like inexplicable weight loss, rectal bleeding, and mineral deficiencies. It’s best to talk directly with your doctor if you have any concerns before considering this eating strategy.

For more information about following a low-FODMAP diet, consider these books:

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