What to Eat When You Have Crohn's Disease

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There’s no single diet that works for everyone who has Crohn’s disease. You may be able to manage a “flare” of symptoms by making some temporary changes to your diet. Some people with Crohn’s and other chronic gastrointestinal diseases find sticking to a certain diet even when they are not having symptoms helps manage their condition.

Benefits

When you have Crohn’s symptoms, avoiding certain foods and beverages may help you feel better. How you eat may also help prevent certain complications from Crohn’s.

Research has shown that diet may have an effect on the progression of Crohn’s, but ultimately there are many factors that determine whether a person gets Crohn’s (particularly genetics).

According to research, some people with Crohn’s report fewer flares if they regularly eat a high-fiber diet. However, you may feel better sticking to a low-fiber diet when you have symptoms.

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How It Works

Some types of food are harder for your body to digest than others. Generally, high-fiber foods like raw vegetables and whole grains require your intestines to do more work than simple, bland, low-fiber food like plain white rice.

When your intestines are weak and damaged, normal digestive processes can be stressful. Asking your body to do a little less work gives your digestion time to heal. 

Putting less demand on your intestines can also ease your symptoms. Some foods leave less residue in your colon, meaning you’ll have fewer bowel movements—which can be especially helpful if you’re having diarrhea.

Avoiding other hard-to-digest foods like those that are high in fat, spicy, or sugary-sweet can also help reduce symptoms. Choosing foods that can pass through your digestive tract easily eliminates the stress of “heavy” foods. Keeping food bland also helps prevent more inflammation.

Duration

A Crohn’s diet may take two forms. You may have one list of foods to eat when you aren’t feeling well and another for when you are not having symptoms.

You may also choose to eat a consistent diet whether or not you are having symptoms if you feel certain foods help you control flares.

You will need to work with your doctor to find a healthy, balanced, diet that works for you in the long term. A registered dietician or nutritionist may also be able to help.

In certain circumstances, your doctor may make strict or specific dietary recommendations that are meant for a shorter period of time. For example, if you have bowel surgery you may be put on a liquid-only diet for the first few days of recovery. Your doctor may suggest a soft diet to help you transition back to your normal diet.

What to Eat

There are general dietary guidelines you can follow, but some trial and error work will be necessary for you to create a personalized Crohn’s diet tailored to your needs and tastes.  

As you experiment with your diet you may find some foods make your symptoms worse. You may choose to avoid these “trigger” foods all the time or just when you’re having a flare. 

You’ll also want to take note of which foods make you feel better (or at least, don’t make you feel worse). “Safe” foods can be part of your regular and healing diet. 

Compliant Foods

  • Bananas

  • Applesauce

  • White rice 

  • Low-fat yogurt (as tolerated) 

  • Plain pasta noodles made from refined white flour

  • Gluten-free bread

  • Sourdough bread

  • Saltines, rice crackers 

  • Smooth nut butter (as tolerated)

  • Clear soups and broth

  • White potato 

  • Chicken breast without skin, lean cut of pork

  • Tofu

  • Soft cooked eggs

  • Honeydew melon, cantaloupe 

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Raw fruit with skin or seeds 

  • Prunes, prune juice

  • Raw vegetables 

  • Corn

  • Onions

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower)

  • Whole grains

  • Beans 

  • Milk, cheese

  • Lunchmeat

  • Tough cuts of meat

  • Wild rice, rice pilaf 

  • Whole-grain bread, pasta, crackers

  • Cereal or granola with nuts/fruit

  • Bran

  • Dried fruit 

  • Butter, coconut, cream 

  • Chocolate 

  • Whole nuts 

  • Pastries, cakes, cookies, candy

  • Popcorn 

  • Sugar substitutes such as xylitol and sorbitol 

  • Greasy, fatty, spicy, or fried foods

  • Coffee

  • Alcohol 

Fruits and Vegetables: Fresh produce is an important part of a balanced, healthy diet. While raw fruits and veggies may be too irritating for your digestive system, many can be peeled, cut, and cooked to be easier to digest. 

For example, a raw apple with the peel may have more fiber than your body can handle. Peeled, chopped, and cooked on the stove, applesauce is a diet staple for stomach upsets. 

Vegetables like potato and squash are easy to cook. You can bake them, boil them, or even microwave them. Low fiber fruits and veggies can also be juiced or puréed for smoothies. 

Some high-fiber fruits and veggies may be best avoided, as they can increase intestinal gas, such as corn, broccoli, and prunes.

Grains: When you’re having symptoms, choose bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates made from refined white flour instead of whole grains. White rice is another low-fiber option. Avoid brown rice, wild rice, or rice pilaf.

Use sourdough bread for toast or, if you don’t eat gluten, look for white bread style gluten-free loaves. Hot cereals, such as Cream of Wheat, may work well. Simply prepared packets of oatmeal are approved if you tolerate them. Avoid cereal and granola that has dried fruit, nuts, or other additions.

Dairy: Even if you aren’t lactose intolerant milk products can be hard to digest during a flare-up of gastrointestinal symptoms. The only dairy products you may wish to include are low-fat yogurts that don’t have added sugars. Yogurt is a good source of probiotics, which may benefit digestive health.

Protein: Choose lean sources of protein, such as skinless chicken breast. Avoid frying food or cooking with oil, butter, or spices. Be careful not to overcook the meat, you don’t want it to be tough.

Plant-based protein staples like beans and legumes can cause gas. Tofu or tempeh may work as a non-meat protein source. Whole nuts can be difficult to digest but you may tolerate small portions of smooth nut butter. 

Desserts: Avoid rich, sugary, fatty treats like cakes, cookies, ice cream, pudding. Gelatin may be OK, but don’t add any whipped topping. Be sure to look out for sugar substitutes like xylitol and sorbitol in “sugar-free” products, especially hard candy and gum. These ingredients sometimes cause digestive distress.

Beverages: You’ll want to do your best to stay hydrated, but you may find carbonated beverages, caffeine, and alcohol worsen your symptoms. Stick to water, electrolyte-replacement drinks, or nutritional supplements recommended by your doctor.

Recommended Timing

When you’re having symptoms, you may find you feel better eating smaller amounts more frequently throughout the day as opposed to sitting down to three big meals. You may feel the best eating on this schedule even when you are not having symptoms.

If you tend to get uncomfortably full quickly, try having drinks and meals or snacks separately.

Modifications

You can make adjustments to the Crohn’s diet to accommodate special dietary needs, food allergies, or other medical conditions.

If you’re pregnant, you may be more likely to experience flares due to the changes taking place in your body, such as fluctuating hormones (though some people experience fewer Crohn’s symptoms during pregnancy).

You might need to modify the Crohn’s diet to ensure you are able to manage your Crohn’s symptoms—as well as any pregnancy symptoms— and still staying properly nourished.

Children can also have Crohn’s. Like adults, they may need to be on a certain diet to manage the condition. 

The dietary needs of children and young adults are very important because growth and development are tied to nutritional status. Kids and teens with Crohn's may need nutritional supplementation to prevent malnourishment, especially if they resist eating due to pain.

Research indicates special diets used to treat digestive disorders, such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, may be helpful for children with Crohn’s. 

Considerations

You can work with your doctor, nutritionist, and other members of your health care team to figure out how making changes to your diet to manage Crohn’s relates to other aspects of your life.

The responsibilities you have at home, work, or school, as well as your social life, can both affect your ability to follow a specific diet and require you to make changes to your lifestyle. Understanding how other factors influence your Crohn’s diet plan will be an essential part of finding a routine that works for you.

General Nutrition

It can be difficult to get adequate nutrition if you need to limit your diet or avoid certain food groups. If you’re having a hard time eating enough on a Crohn’s diet, your doctor may suggest you try liquid nutritional supplements.

If your Crohn’s is severe and causes you to become malnourished, your doctor may want you to have a feeding tube to help restore nutrition.

Dietary Restrictions

If you have other dietary considerations, such as needing to avoid gluten due to celiac disease, or preferring a plant-based diet, talk to your doctor or nutritionist about how you can make these needs and preferences work for a Crohn’s diet. 

For example, many gluten-free brands of bread and pasta come in the style of white bread rather than multigrain or wheat. If you’re looking for gluten-free pasta noodles, avoid alternatives made with beans, legumes, and corn.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you may already be avoiding some foods that are not compliant with a Crohn’s diet. However, many staples of plant-based diets, including whole grains, beans, and raw produce, are not approved. If your diet becomes too restricted, you may have a hard time getting the nutrition you need.

You’ll need to work with your health care team to adjust your diet according to these preferences while still managing your Crohn’s symptoms. You may need to take vitamins or other supplements to prevent deficiencies.

Support and Community

If you have Crohn’s disease you may already be part of an in-person or online support community for patients. If you have questions or concerns about changing your diet to manage the condition, you should talk to your doctor. However, it can often be helpful to talk to other people who have “been there” and will understand what you’re going through on an emotional level.

When you are feeling ill or recovering from a procedure, try your best to let family and friends help you. You can prepare a lot of Crohn’s diet-friendly meals ahead of time and freeze them, but it will be a big help if you have someone who can heat food up for you or run to the store for cold drinks, crackers, or to pick up prescriptions.

Cost

Many of the foods suitable for a Crohn’s diet (such as white rice) are affordable, especially if you buy them in bulk.

Kitchen implements like blenders or handheld food processors can make pureeing foods for a Crohn’s diet much easier. You can certainly find more expensive tools, but a basic blender will do the job for about $20. You can also find other affordable options online.

While you can buy many brands of liquid supplemental nutrition (such as Ensure) at the grocery store or pharmacy, they can be expensive. If your doctor wants you to include them in your diet, ask if they can be prescribed. If you have insurance, these products (or similar products) may be covered by your plan.

Side Effects

Some temporary digestive upset is common whenever you make changes to your diet. Eating more or less of certain foods, especially those with fiber, can directly affect your bowel function (both in terms of the consistency or quality of your bowel movements as well as how frequent they are).

While these symptoms will likely get better as your body adjusts to your new diet, let your doctor know if they persist or get worse. Constipation from a low-fiber diet may benefit from fiber supplements or something as simple as drinking more water throughout the day. Diarrhea that doesn’t get better after a few days may be a sign of an underlying condition and also puts you at risk for becoming dehydrated.

Energy and General Health

If you’re eating less solid food or focusing on primarily bland foods to manage a flare of Crohn’s symptoms, you may find you don’t have as much energy as you typically do.

Make it your goal to get as much nutrition as you can every day, which includes eating enough calories to fuel your body. Adequate nutrition from a varied, balanced, diet isn’t just important for managing Crohn’s. it’s also important to maintaining your overall health.

If you have Crohn’s you’re at risk for complications from the disease, including infections. You may also be more likely to have other health conditions, some of which may be linked to your immune system.

Proper nourishment is one way you can help your body heal from a Crohn’s flare as well as any other ailments you’re trying to manage.

A Word From Verywell

There isn't one diet that works for everyone with inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn's. Many people with the condition use elements of low-fiber, low-fat, and low-FODMAP diets to create a plan that helps them manage Crohn's. During times when they are having symptom flares, it can be useful to stick to a BRAT diet, though this is only a temporary measure. If you have Crohn's, you may find it helpful to work with a registered dietician or nutritionist to design a Crohn's diet plan that suits your unique dietary needs and tastes.

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