I’m Anti-Diet, But Trying the Low-FODMAP Diet—Here’s Why

The latest buzzy diet is more than just restriction. Here's what, and why, you should learn about FODMAPs.

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The Paleo diet. The Med. The MIND. The Dash. Vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, low-sugar…low-FODMAP? Yes. There’s a buzzy new diet on the grid, and you should take note of this one—not because it’s trending and even if you are completely, totally anti-diet. Normally, I’m not one for restrictive regimens. I’ve researched all these so-called healthy approaches, tried one or two—and after a while, have come to the conclusion that flat-out, forever deprivation just leads to problematic issues with eating and food. I think moderation is the best policy. But when struggles with Irritable Bowel Syndrome finally led me for a check-up with my doc, we looped back to the almighty l0w-FODMAP diet. I’d dabbled in this approach before, researched it to death, and finally decided to give it a go—despite my diets-no-more attitude. Here’s why.

What the heck is a FODMAP?

At the most basic level, you may be wondering: What on earth is a FODMAP? It’s not one “thing,” but many things. It’s an acronym: Fermentable Oligo, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols. Although you’d never know it by looking at that super-confusing term, the contents above are all over your delicious Western diet. Basically, they are the carbohydrates you frequently eat that your body does not naturally handle well. FODMAPs are osmotic, meaning they suck water into the GI tract. In addition, they’re quickly fermented in the gut by microscopic bacteria, leading to uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating—which anyone may have, but particularly people with IBS or digestive troubles. A few FODMAPs are no big deal, but excess can prevent a problem. Think about the concept like a bucket in the small intestine. Everybody’s FODMAP bucket is a different size—but smaller the more sensitive you are to FODMAPs. Every time you eat these types of carbohydrates, they go into the bucket. At a certain point, when you’ve had more FODMAPs than your body is personally equipped to handle, the contents of your bucket will spill over into your large intestine to cause symptoms. And no one likes to be bloated and gassy, with abdominal pain and constipation or diarrhea all the time. Right?

What foods are high in FODMAPs?

I knew you’d see the logic. Now, let’s talk more about high-FODMAP foods, which all sort of pare down into five key groups. fructose (fruits like apples, watermelon and pears; high-fructose corn syrup; honey) lactose (dairy products like cow’s milk, yogurt, soft cheese and ice cream) fructans (wheat and rye, certain veggies, onion and garlic) galactans (dried peas, beans, legumes) polyols (certain fruits, certain veggies, sugar alcohols) A low-FODMAP regimen is an elimination diet. During the first phase, your job is to get rid of all high-FODMAP items and clean up your gut of every little thing that ails it. If this sounds like a lot, it is. You’ll nix lots of fruits like apples, blackberries, peaches, cherries, watermelon and mango. You’ll nix some veggies, like asparagus, cauliflower, mushrooms and peas. No dairy, meaning cow’s milk, soft cheeses like cottage cheese or ricotta, ice cream, yogurt. No wheat, no rye, no barley; you’re basically going to go gluten-free. Dietary “extras” need to be sorted; anything high in fructans or polyols especially will have to go, including garlic, onion, sugar alcohols and agave. Anything high in fructose, like honey or HFCS, is also a no-go.

That sounds horrible. (Why would I ever do that?)

I know. When I first saw all the stuff I couldn’t eat, I kind of started hyperventilating. I mean—no ice cream? No honey?? No BREAD??? Yeah, but first off, it’s only for a while. Although a low-FODMAP diet is definitely restrictive, the elimination phase lasts just a couple months, maximum. Secondly, there’s still a lot you can eat. Basically, protein sources are all good-to-go, meaning chicken, beef, pork, fish, egg and deli meats. You can eat most nuts, except cashews and pistachios. You can eat grains like quinoa, rice, oatmeal, and corn-based items. Fruits and veggies aren’t all bad, so you can still nosh on bananas, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, honeydew, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, eggplant and carrots. You can even eat some awesome cheeses like feta, mozzarella and swiss. (Ask your doc, though, before starting a regimen on your own. Scientists are measuring FODMAPs all the time, and changing these lists.) Once symptoms that are diet-based resolve to the best they are able—your doc or a trained RD will help you determine this—you will begin to add the taboo foods back into your life. Category by category, one food at a time. This will determine your tolerance for specific types of FODMAPs, and basically identify your personal perfect, gut-friendly diet—and the more you know your gut in general, the better you’ll be able to predict and avoid the foods that will cause you symptoms.

The Diet’s Biggest Takeaway

If you suffer from digestive symptoms regularly, I’d recommend a short-term dive into FODMAPs—even if you eventually decide that you’ll soldier on with symptoms if it means you can eat your favorite ice cream after dinner or keep gluten in your diet. So, why do it? Because knowledge is always power. And there may come a day—a wedding, a big presentation at work, an all-day event—where you really don’t want to (or don’t have time to) deal with the nuisance of GI problems, and you’ll be glad to know what foods trigger those for you. You can stick to your “safe” foods, because you’ve predetermined them. If you don’t predetermine them, you’ll be taking shots in the dark every time you eat. So if you’ve got IBS, think you have IBS, or just have a finicky gut, talk to your doctor about a low-FODMAP approach. After six weeks on the elimination portion, and about two more to go, I’ve survived to tell you about it—and I’ve reduced my symptom load by probably about 70 percent, which is definitely a win in my book. (Although, yes: I’m really looking forward to trying cheesy bread and ice cream again. Mmmm…)