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The Beginner’s Guide to the Low-FODMAP Diet

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The Beginner’s Guide to the Low-FODMAP Diet

If your stomach gives you all kinds of trouble when you eat, then reducing the amount of FODMAPs in your diet might just change your life. Here’s why.

 

If you’re like most people, you’ve heard all about the dangers of gluten but have no idea what a FODMAP is.

And if you regularly experience gastrointestinal issues when you eat–gassiness, bloating, nausea, abdominal pain, cramping, belching, reflux, fatigue, diarrhea and/or constipation–then you need to read this article.

Because reducing your FODMAP intake is more likely to solve the problem than going on a gluten-free diet.

In fact, research has found that a low-FODMAP diet improves symptoms in 74% of patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and is the real culprit behind what many people think is non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).

So, let’s look at what FODMAPs are, why they can be so troublesome, and how you can assess your sensitivity to them and, if necessary, eliminate them from your diet.

What Is a FODMAP?

low fodmap diet ibs

FODMAP stands for…deep breath…Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols.

And that’s science talk for a type of carbohydrate that’s hard to digest and found mainly in plant-based foods, dairy products, and sweeteners.

But just for the sake of thoroughness, let’s unpack this acronym one word at a time.

It starts with fermentable because these carbs ferment easily in the colon.

Then come three types of saccharides, which are sugar molecules found in foods.

Monosaccharides are often called simple sugars because they have a very simple structure. Mono means one and saccharide means sugar. So, one sugar.

The monosaccharides are…

  • Glucose

Glucose is a type of sugar also known as blood sugar, which is found in our blood and produced from the food we eat (most dietary carbohydrates contain glucose, either as the sole form of sugar or combined with the other two simple sugars given above).

When people talk about “blood sugar levels,” they’re talking about the amount of glucose floating around in the blood.

  • Fructose

Fructose is a type of sugar naturally found in fruit, and also found in processed products like sucrose (table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup, both of which are about 50% fructose and 50% glucose.

Fructose is converted into glucose by the liver and then released into the blood for use.

  • Galactose

Galactose is a type of sugar found in dairy products and it’s metabolized similarly to fructose.

Oligosaccharides are molecules that contain several monosaccharides linked together in chain-like structures. Oligos is Greek for a few, so a “few” sugars.

These sugars are one of the components of fiber found in plants, which our bodies are able to partially break down into glucose (leaving the fibrous, indigestible parts behind to do good things in our guts).

Many vegetables also contain fructo-oligosaccharides, which are short chains of fructose molecules. These are metabolized accordingly (the “chains” are broken and the individual fructose molecules are then converted into glucose for use).

Another common form of oligosaccharide that we eat is raffinose, which is comprised of a chain of galactose, glucose, and fructose (called a trisaccharide), and which can be found in beans, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli,asparagus, other vegetables, and whole grains.

Galactooligosaccharides round out the list of oligosaccharides, and are short chains of galactose molecules. These are indigestible but play a role in stimulating healthy bacteria growth in the gut.

Disaccharides are molecules that’s composed of two monosaccarides .

Two common examples of disaccharides are milk sugar (lactose), which is made from glucose and galactose, and table sugar (sucrose), which is made from glucose and fructose.

Last but not least is the polyols, which are also called sugar alcohols, and which are a group of low-calorie, sweet carbs that can be substituted for table sugar.

The most popular polyols are erythritol, maltitol, xylitol, and sorbitol.

Now, if you look over all the foods I just listed again, you’ll quickly understand why people with a FODMAP sensitivity are often baffled by their condition.

Namely, it goes far beyond wheat and wheat products, which are the dietary scapegoat du jour.

FODMAPs are ubiquitous in the modern Western diet, and people with a FODMAP sensitivity can work hard to eat an extremely “clean” diet replete with fruit, veggies, legumes, and the like…only to suffer for it.

They never suspect that the problem lies in the fact that their bodies just can’t properly digest and absorb all the “healthy” foods they’re eating.

For example, some of the foods most likely to light the FODMAP fuse include

  • Apples
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Chicory
  • Chickpeas
  • Legumes
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Radicchio
  • Snow peas
  • Watermelon
  • Processed grains and cereals

Furthermore, FODMAPs are found in seemingly innocent condiments, canned and bottled sodas, beverages such as fruit juice, and much more.

Research also shows that some people experience non-optimum reactions only when certain amounts of FODMAPs are eaten, making it even harder to make sense of their circumstances.

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Why Are Some People Sensitive to FODMAPs?

fodmap foods

In the case of oligosaccharides, humans simply lack the enzymes to break them down.

That means that when these carbs reach the colon, they’re still relatively intact, which can cause GI distress.

The two main offenders here are fructans and galactans.

Fructans are a form of fructose found in various fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains; and galactans are a form of galactose found primarily in legumes.

In the case of disaccharides, the most troublesome one is, by far, lactose (a sugar found in mammals’ milk).

While the body is able to produce an enzyme to break down lactose–lactasemany adults no longer do, hence the prevalence of lactose intolerance.

Out of the three monosaccharides, fructose gives people the most grief.

Once it reaches your intestines, it can draw in water and cause intestinal swelling, which tells the nervous system that something is wrong.

Research shows that this can even happen in healthy, symptom-free individuals.

In fact, when a large dose of fructose is consumed by itself (e.g. 50 grams) the majority of healthy individuals will malabsorb at least some of it and may experience symptoms normally associated with a fructose sensitivity.

(This highlights one of the problems with the pervasiveness of high-fructose corn syrup in our foods.)

Polyols, which are found in many sugar-free foods, candies, and gums, are only partially digested and absorbed in the small intestine, and once they reach the large intestine, can result in bloating and laxative effects.

Who Should Avoid FODMAPs?

If you have any of the following conditions, then a low FODMAP diet may help reduce your symptoms.

  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Lactose/fructose malabsorption
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • A suspected non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)

Many of these “disorders” disrupt quality of life and don’t respond well to medication, so alternate approaches of coping are often welcome.

How to Know If You’re Sensitive to FODMAPs

fodmap elimination diet

While simple breath tests claim (with questionable accuracy) to determine FODMAPs sensitivity, only a few of the offenders can be tested (fructose, sorbitol, and lactose).

The most reliable way to assess your gut’s relationship with FODMAPs is a comprehensive elimination diet.

An elimination diet is a strategic approach to reducing and reintroducing FODMAPs in your diet, closely monitoring your body to learn how each food affects you.

A typical FODMAPs elimination diet lasts 6 to 8 weeks and looks like this:

  • First, you reduce overall FODMAPs intake

You can do this by substituting high-FODMAP foods with lower-FODMAP options or by reducing the total FODMAP load consumed at each meal.

This phase should last around 4 weeks, or until your symptoms are under control.

  • Next, you systematically reintroduce FODMAPs

Here you begin to reintroduce FODMAPs one at a time, paying close attention to how your body reacts.

A detailed food and symptoms log is the only way to get a good look at what is causing your problems, so attentiveness and patience is key.

  • Finally, you tweak and expand your diet

In the last step, you work to gradually increase your diet to include FODMAPs at tolerated levels.

You may find that only one or two foods are responsible for most of your symptoms, and many people (joyously) discover they’re still able to eat their favorite foods in moderation.

If that sounds like a huge headache, I understand.

Remember, though, that it’s a one-time affair that will help you determine the optimum FODMAPs levels for your body.

The goal isn’t to go full-on Howard Hughes with your diet–it’s to learn to create varied, enjoyable meal plans that produce the least number of symptoms.

How to Eat a Low-FODMAP Diet

fodmap diet list

A low-FODMAP diet focuses on foods low in gluten, dairy, and fructose, as well as the avoidance of fruits and vegetables with rapidly fermentable soluble fiber.

For a full list check out this low FODMAP shopping guide. This app is a handy resource too.

More and more nutritionists and physicians are also beginning to recommend low-FODMAP diets for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, so there is likely support out there if you want a hands-on approach.

And if you’re worried that going low-FODMAP will leave you with nothing good to eat, fret not.

Here are just a few of my favorite low-FODMAP foods:

  • Fruits: Banana, orange, mandarin, grapes, melon.
  • Grains: Gluten-free bread and sourdough spelt bread, rice bubbles, oats, gluten-free pasta, rice, quinoa.
  • Dairy: Lactose-free milk, lactose-free yogurt, hard cheese.
  • Nuts/seeds: Almonds (<10 nuts), pumpkin seeds.
  • Protein: Meats, fish, chicken, Tofu, tempeh.
  • Vegetables: Alfalfa, bean sprouts, green beans, bok choy, capsicum (bell pepper), carrot, chives, fresh herbs, choy sum, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, zucchini.
  • Other snacks: Gluten-free biscuits, rice cakes, corn thins.

You can also make it easier on yourself by creating an individualized list with your FODMAP-friendly preferences in mind.

It’s also a good idea to prepare your meals and snacks yourself to keep a close eye on ingredients. Remember–FODMAPs are lurking in many unexpected places.

Finally, once you have pinpointed the FODMAP(s) you’re most sensitive to, you can start taking digestive enzyme supplements aimed at breaking them down.

This “targeted” approach to enzyme supplementation can significantly reduce symptoms.

It’s also worth noting that many high-FODMAP foods are also very nutritious. This is why you don’t necessary want to follow a low-FODMAP diet forever, even when you’re sensitive to these foods.

Thus, the goal isn’t to permanently ban FODMAPs from your life–it’s to find your body’s “happy medium” between all-out FODMAP indulgence and strict abstinence, where nutrition is balanced and symptoms are all but eliminated.

The Bottom Line on the Low-FODMAP Diet

Unlike the many fad diets that come and go, the low-FODMAP diet is a legitimate, science-based strategy for improving your gut health and overall well-being.

If you generally don’t experience any stomach troubles after eating, then you don’t have any need for it.

If you do, though, and especially if you think you have a gluten sensitivity, then a low-FODMAP lifestyle might make all the difference.

 

What’s your take on the low-FODMAP diet? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • mary

    Hi Mike. In your article, there is a sentence that starts with: “They are found in (to name a few):”

    Is it possible that there is meant to be a list of FODMAP foods here? I am dying to know what is on the list.

    Mary

    • mary

      Never mind…I see the list.

    • Oops. Sorry for the typo. I fixed.

  • Chris Hoyle

    Hi Mike, I can relate to this article, I used to have a lot of chicken with salad which included baby spinach leaf and red onion then have some sort of meat and cooked veg when I got home for tea, that combined with fruit throughout the day meant quite a lot of vegetable/fruit matter in my diet. I used to suffer from what I can only describe as something scraping through my large intestine just under my right ribcage, whilst it was never painful, it was distracting and uncomfortable. I started eliminating things from my diet and I suspect it was raw onion and spinach which I have reduced or cut from my diet and am now fine. So elimination does work, it just takes time to find out the cause!

  • Vlad Cherchezan

    I have had quite a bit of trouble with this and it’s the bacteria in your gut that is causing the discomfort – which can be quite extreme – as someone who has this will know. Basically your intestine is damaged for some reason or another and it becomes unable to absorb carbs correctly. In my case I have issues with pretty much all carbs. I can have very small quantities of bananas without issues otherwise it’s pretty bad. I can also have some veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers but it’s kind of random. However I found that I can have dextrose without issues which allows me to continue on the high carb low fat diet that is so popular here. Whenever you have the digestive issues it literally means your body did not absorb the carbs and the bacteria is having a party because now they have extra food. The problem is that this encourages bacteria to grow in very large numbers in the small intestine – they stick to the intestine walls and don’t allow it to heal – that is why some people need antibiotics like rifaximin and then continue on a low carb diet for a while until the intestine heals. Glutamine also helps here. Sometimes it won’t heal even if you keep the diet for years. It’s hard to tell but it’s a major pain in the ass and makes life kind of difficult, especially if you work out. I recommend going extremely low carb for a week. If your symptoms go away it’s the carbs that are causing your problems and you should consider treatment because, like I said, in many people it can be cured.

  • FODMAP Friendly

    Hi Mike, FODMAP Friendly are the world’s only registered Certification Trademark for certifying low FODMAP foods, just wanted to reach out and say how much we loved this article!
    We would love to contact you directly to tell you some exciting news about low FODMAP products in the US, as well as about the FODMAP Friendly App!

  • Zook024

    Very good timing on this article Mike. I had been experiencing stomach aches and churning several months ago which had progressively gotten worse. Finally I couldn’t bear it anymore and talked with my primary physician who diagnosed IBS caused by stress (from a couple different sources).

    I proceeded to visit a chiropractic doctor who diagnosed a problem with my ileocecal valve and after performing a food sensitivity test, found I was reactive to several foods including gluten, milk, garlic, and barley. This hit me hard and my first thought was “shit, no more beer and pizza!” But over the past few weeks I have found it surprisingly easy to change my diet, remove some things and substitute others and I honestly haven’t felt this good and strong in a long time. I’m progressively seeing my strength increasing following the BLS regiment and my physique has never been better. I still have a cheat meal, at the most once a week in which I’ll be at a restaurant with friends having a few drinks which is a nice treat and makes that beer and pizza taste better! It’s really stuff you have been writing about for years now Mike.

    • Wow, that’s great, man! Glad to hear you’ve made it work and are seeing great results.

      And thanks, I appreciate that.

  • Ian Stewart

    Hey Mike, I first heard you mention FODMAP foods on your podcast. I’d never come across this before. Ive basically had all sorts or tummy issues over the years with no help from doctors. For about a month now I’ve eliminated garlic completely. I used to have lots of garlic because I thought it would only ever help my situation. Since eliminating it from my diet I’ve noticed a massive improvement!! 🙂 I really want to thank you for raising this issue – no one else ever has!! Your advice, yet again, has been invaluable. Cheers mate. Ian 😀

    • That’s great, Ian! Glad to hear you were able to find the source of your problem and fix it. YW.

  • T Gonzalez

    I’m very overwhelmed right now because of this format diet. It’s like everything healthy that I eat I can’t have. I need lots of fiber. Now I can’t have any. Thanks for the article. Trying to cope.

    • You don’t have to take all of them out for good. First remove them from your diet, then introduce them one by one until you identify the ones causing you trouble.

    • Jodi Maurici

      Been where you are. There are plenty of ways to get the fiber and include only the low fodmaps. I don’t know how these blogs work but I can help

  • P Mort

    Would those Kodiak cakes you like be violating the FODMAP diet…my late night gassy-ness might be on account of those as I just introduced them recently, and if that’s the case, they’re gone.

    • Yeah, they do.

      • P Mort

        I think the issue at the time was just the increased fiber intake, which I’m glad because these things rule. Buttermilk & honey and following your perfect pancake article these things are always fantastic.

      • P Mort

        I’ve still been eating them but I think I’m going to have to face the music that these are causing me unnecessary bloat. Would love a post on FODMAP friendly recipes on here, I’m struggling to find variety in this. It sucks ass limiting foods, and finding carbs that cooperate is a nightmare.

        • 🙁 Well…let’s see what axing them will do!

          • P Mort

            That’s the plan. Also, tell Mike we need a FODMAP friendly recipe post on here.

          • Not a bad idea actually. 🙂

          • P Mort

            The biggest challenge I’m finding is higher carb food for refeeds, which those those Kodiak Cakes were filling in for, and I’m bummed about that because they are incredible. But even still, more compelling recipes than a peanut butter sandwich on $6 a loaf Udi’s White Gluten Free bread for the every day would be nice.

          • Have you tried pasta? Bagels? Whole grains?

          • P Mort

            I have issues with too much fiber. I don’t mind pasta, but I struggle finding any recipes that don’t contain other bloat-worthy ingredients.

          • Have you tried the fruits and gains from the low-FODMAP list above?

          • P Mort

            Yep, I include fruits in almost every meal. Blueberries, oranges, bananas, and sometimes strawberries.

          • You’ll just have to increase the volume of them. If after that, you still have trouble getting enough carbs, I recommend getting them from liquids like rice milk, fruit juice, etc. Without overdoing it, jam, honey and syrup are also really easy ways to increase the carb intake.

  • Jodi Maurici

    I have been following the FODMAP plan for about 8 years and single handedly cured my horrible IBS without help of doctors. I had been to every doctor and they all said the same thing “It’s IBS and theres nothing we can do.” SO I did what I do best and went to the research table. I found the Monash University study and began following the advice. I cured myself and the doctors had no idea how. I had to tell THEM about FODMAPS. This plan will change your life if you have horrible digestive issues. As a nutrition consultant and educator, I am a coach for many who have come to me with the same concerns and they are all astonished at how good they feel.

    • Nice work!

    • I hope to be the next story like this, if I can ever can past this severe flare up!

      • Jodi Maurici

        If you have questions, you can message me. I am a Nutrition Counselor and have walked many people through the FODMAPs with success.

  • Casey Collier

    Hey Mike,
    Would someone on this low FODMAP diet be okay consuming Lunar? It has chamomile in it… Thanks!

    • Yup, should be fine. You can always try it out and see how it goes.

      • Casey Collier

        Will do! Tried it last night and felt good and slept great!

  • Kam

    Ugh! How come my stupid doctor never told me about this?! I have ALL of the symptoms mentioned and only noticed these symptoms after I “cleaned up” my diet. I have been baffled because I eat healthier than ever but have IBS-like symptoms and can’t lose fat to save my life! I’m going to try this, thank you for writing this article!

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