The Low FODMAP Diet: What Is It, How It Works, How It Helps

The Low FODMAP (aka FODMAPs) diet is starting to make headlines. You may have heard about it at the gym, from a doctor, or know someone who is following it. As it’s still relatively new, in today’s post we will look at what exactly it is and why it’s gaining such fast popularity.

What does ‘FODMAPs’ mean, anyways?

FODMAPs isn’t a new word: it’s an acronym! It stands for short-chained carbohydrates that aren’t well absorbed by the gut: 

  • Fermentable 
  • Oligosaccharides, 
  • Disaccharides, 
  • Monosaccharides,
  • And 
  • Polyols

Sounds like a bunch of chemicals, right? Well...kind of: they’re molecules!

The above list contains molecules, or sugars, from the foods we eat that aren’t easily digested (such as: lactose, fructose, galactans, polyols, and fructans). Because these sugars are not easily digested, they’re actually fermented by the bacteria in your gut...and this fermentation can lead to gastrointestinal distress (note: this does not mean all fermented foods are off limits when you're on the low FODMAP diet).

Fermentation? Yep!  Your GI tract is populated by microorganisms and this is completely normal and part of the digestive process. These microorganisms actually break down the carbohydrates we eat (these tiny microorganisms rely on the carbs we eat for their energy). Carbohydrates you don’t easily digest become a feast for your gut’s microorganisms. As the ferment, the microbes in your gut produce gases such as hydrogen — which, in turn, makes your intestines expand. All the extra gas eventually gets expelled or reabsorbed into your bloodstream. While this is all normal,  things go wrong for those who suffer from IBS.

The researchers at Monash identified there are differences between carbohydrates, and how they are digested, that positively or negatively impact the symptoms of IBS. For example, some carbs ferment quickly (which leads to rapid gas production and related symptoms). Some carbs are poorly absorbed (which can leave your gut with extra gut bacteria to deal with...or not).

               Billions of microorganisms make their home in your digestive tract

What is the ‘Low FODMAP Diet’? 

The low FODMAP diet was created by a team of Australian researchers on a mission to help treat the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). As you may know, IBS is a disorder that can cause its sufferers a considerable amount of discomfort and greatly impact quality-of-life. During their research, the scientists at Australia’s Monash University zeroed in on the FODMAPs carbohydrates as they have been shown to contribute to gut inflammation and the symptoms of IBS as well as other functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID). In a double-blind study in which everyone followed the Low FODMAPs diet, the researchers discovered that symptoms of GI issues improved for all of the study’s participants.

Sufferers of IBS can find relief with the Low FODMAP diet
                  Sufferers of IBS can find relief with the Low FODMAP diet

How exactly does the FODMAP Diet work?

The Low FODMAP diet works by eliminating any fermentable carbohydrates, usually for a short time, to achieve reduction of unpleasant, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous symptoms of GI-related distress. The main idea behind the Low FODMAPs diet is that someone suffering from IBS or another FGID will benefit greatly from reducing the foods that create inflammation in the gut and, as a result, allows for the gut to properly heal when it’s not inflamed.

The Low FODMAP diet isn’t like a typical diet: it’s a diet meant to eliminate the cause of intestinal distress. You can even think of it like a learning process: typically how it works is that you remove foods have the potential to aggravate GI symptoms and you allow your gut time to heal. By taking away the potentially damaging foods, you may start to feel better and then can start with a clean slate. After a set amount of time (typically 6-8 weeks), you may then slowly reintroduce some of the FODMAP foods. By reintroducing the potentially-offending FODMAP foods slowly, you can track which ones are causing symptoms. 

The symptoms that those following the Low FODMAPs diet are most likely to see improve include: flatulence, abdominal pain, bloating, and stool irregularities.

Why is the Low FODMAP Diet getting so popular?

More and more Americans, and people right here in St. Louis, are developing symptoms of GI distress and getting diagnosed with IBS. It’s on the rise — with an astonishing 7-10% of people, worldwide, suffering from IBS today.

Unfortunately, IBS is both a common and chronic condition for those who suffer from it. It’s considered ‘common’ because it’s not rare: countless people across the globe suffer from IBS. It’s considered ‘chronic’ because it’s not something that just goes away overnight: it must be managed over time and sufferers must take a proactive, and long-term, approach.

Though more research will surely be conducted into the efficacy of the Low FODMAPs diet, there is enough evidence and clinical trials that already indicate the low FODMAP diet is able to help IBS patients significantly alleviate symptoms. Given how common IBS is, it’s no wonder that a diet that can help address IBS symptoms is gaining such popularity...and fast!

So...what are ‘low FODMAPs’ foods & meals?

This is where it gets a bit it’s a diet that drills down to the molecular level, there are specific foods that are considered to be ‘Low FODMAPs’ and some that are considered ‘High FODMAPs’ and which should be avoided when following the Low FODMAPs diet. For example, not all vegetables and grains are considered ‘low FODMAPs’; not all vegetables and grains are considered ‘high FODMAPs’. Because of this, it can be a bit tricky to properly follow.

Harvard has published a helpful article with examples of what to avoid, and what is ok, when following the LOW FODMAPs diet. Lactose-free dairy, rice milk, and some hard cheeses such as feta are ok; cow’s milk and cottage cheese are not considered ‘low FODMAPs’. Cucumbers and lettuce are considered ok on a low FODMAPs diet; broccoli, however,  is not.

IBS can cause serious, and often debilitating, symptoms. Low FODMAP diets can help.
             IBS can cause debilitating symptoms, but low FODMAP diets can help.

Because knowing what is ok to include, and what needs to be excluded, can be difficult, the Low FODMAPs diet can lead to problems of adherence and even nutritional issues without the right support. If you are going to be following a Low FODMAPs diet, you should do so with professional guidance and talk to your doctor about it.

To summarize, if you have been diagnosed with IBS or FGID, don’t let the scientific name of this new diet scare you away from finding out more about a diet that could potentially help you to alleviate the symptoms you suffer in your day-to-day life. The evidence is there that following a Low FODMAPs diet can help you feel better, heal your inflamed gut, and slowly even reintroduce foods (while weeding out the bad ones).