It is a question asked by many with ulcerative colitis (UC) – what should I eat? Although diet is not the cause of the inflammatory bowel disease, it plays a key role in managing symptoms. I made the mistake of not looking at my diet when I was first diagnosed last year and I suffered because of it. I have always been one to eat healthy, so when my doctor recommended I change my diet, I was surprised because I believed there was not anything wrong with it. However, I found myself spending a majority of the day bloated, gassy and in the bathroom. After a year of ignoring the problem, I gave in and researched what foods are commonly known to irritate UC. Since giving my diet a complete makeover, I have seen such a change in how I feel – for the better. Unfortunately, I cannot share an “ulcerative colitis diet”, because there is no such thing. This illness affects everyone differently, which means what I may be able to eat, the next person may not. But there is hope! Although I cannot tell you what you can and cannot eat, I will do my best to help you narrow the list down.
First, I feel it is important to explain why your diet can make or break you. There are trillions of bacterial cells in your gut – some good and some bad. The good ones are like little soldiers that help digest food and fight off infection, and they live off of the healthy foods you eat. However, the bad bacterial cells thrive on junk food and use this fuel to multiply, kill off the good ones and create inflammation in the digestive tract. To help the good bacteria win the war, you need to provide them with better nutrition. And how you do this is by listening to your body. You and your body are now a team in this fight against ulcerative colitis. Pay close attention to how it reacts to certain foods – it will not shy away from letting you know that something is not settling right. If after a meal you feel bloated, gassy or run straight to the bathroom, you know that something you ate needs to be eighty-sixed from your diet.
When I was first diagnosed with UC, I did nothing to manage the symptoms nor did I take the time to learn what the illness was. I went about my normal routine and just suffered through the pain. It wasn’t until last fall did I decided to listen to what my body needs. It isn’t an easy thing to master, because you forget what it is like to eat food and feel normal afterwards, so it is hard to know which foods are wreaking havoc on your gut. But this is where process of elimination comes in. By following this method, I have been able to ease the pain, gas, bloat and urgent need to go. I no longer eat red meat, dairy, starchy fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. It was difficult to give up a lot of these foods, especially dairy, but the relief I feel is worth the sacrifice. Although there is not a set diet plan for this illness, experts have found common trigger foods/beverages. This includes dairy, beans, legumes, alcohol, caffeine, high fiber foods, fatty meats, nuts, sugar and gluten. I know this list may have you wondering “well, what can I eat” but again, everyone is different. I recommend logging everything you eat. I use MyFitnessPal to keep a food diary. This allows me to track exactly what I ate and if I feel sick, I can look back and find the culprit. Doing this also lets you see how many vitamins you are getting or not getting. I have found that because of the constant diarrhea and rectal bleeding, I am not getting the nutrients I need to fuel my body. So I check them throughout the day and eat foods that will feed fill what I am lacking.
For my ulcerative colitis fitness lovers, I suggest tossing out your whey protein if you have not done so already. After eliminating dairy from my diet I still felt sick throughout the day. It wasn’t until my husband read the label on the protein powder container did I realize I was consuming dairy without realizing it. I have since switched to plant-based protein and, even though it tastes like dirt, my gut has been much happier. This is also a reminder to check EVERY label on packaged food. You will not believe how many foods contain dairy or soy. I have not had issues with products that are made in facilities that use the ingredients in other things, but just as long as it is not in the food itself. As mentioned, dairy has been the hardest to give up. I mean who doesn’t love cheese and ice cream? But just like finding a protein substitute, I have found other dairy-free products to get my fix. I keep the fridge stocked with vegan cheese (I only recommend eating it melted) and coconut or almond milk based yogurt. I tried soy, but it made me feel just as bloated as yogurt made with regular milk. You can also find ice cream that is made with coconut milk – Halo Top has recently come out with coconut-based ice cream. The only thing I have not yet been able to give up is my beloved morning cup of Joe, but I some brands offer their coffee with low acid, which is easier on the stomach – just make sure you are using almond or coconut milk instead of dairy creamer.
When experiencing a bad flare, the last thing you are thinking of is food. But because of the symptoms you need to refuel your body, which is where juicing might help. While researching relief for symptoms, I stumbled across a variety of YouTubers who said they “cured” their ulcerative colitis through juicing. and many said they had been in remission for years.
I can’t support nor deny their claims, but I can tell you I felt some relief during a horrific flare just a few months ago after juicing. My husband and I were going on vacation for a week, but my symptoms were so bad I was worried the trip would be ruined, so I decided to give juicing a try. For about three days leading up to the trip, I only drank a juice for each meal and I did not have the trouble on our vacation that I did before we left. For the juice, I blended red cabbage, avocado, bananas, blueberries, aloe vera gel, raw ginger and a scoop of plant-based protein. All of these ingredients (minus the protein powder) are known to have anti-inflammatory powers and are packed with vitamins and nutrients. Not only is this juice an anti-inflammatory elixir, but I also believe it relieves symptoms because it is easier to digest than solid foods.
My last piece of advice when focusing on diet is not to be afraid to talk about it with your friends. When eating at a friend’s home, I almost always bring my own food (all about that Tupperware life). They are never insulted and always check if I can eat something before offering it. Also, do not be embarrassed to be particular when ordering food at a restaurant. I have always been that person who makes specific requests, but now with UC it is even more detailed. I ask if things are cooked in butter, to have sauces on the side and many questions about ingredients used in a dish. Even if you just ask for plain grilled chicken and steamed vegetables, places are usually very accommodating to your needs. If you have not taken a good look at your diet, please take the time to learn about what you can and cannot eat. I promise it will make a world of difference and your gut will thank you.