10 Tips for Dining Out With IBS

Most people see eating out at a restaurant as a wonderful treat. You get to enjoy the company of others, eat interesting food that has been expertly prepared, and be free from the chores of cooking and kitchen clean-up. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may not feel quite as positive about the whole experience. In fact, it is likely that the idea of going out to a restaurant fills you with terror.


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It can be tough to commit to plans to eat out with a body that experiences unpredictable episodes of painful cramping, bouts of urgent diarrhea, or bloating from constipation. Some people feel reluctant to commit to such an invitation or experience a spike in anxiety when they actually order their meal because it makes them feel trapped. And it can be difficult to trust that eating foods that have been prepared in an unknown way, with possible mystery ingredients, won't set off an IBS flare.

But all hope is not lost! One of the best things that you can do to ensure that you have a comfortable meal at a restaurant is to get information ahead of time. Most restaurants post their menus online so you can find out ahead of time if there will be appropriate food choices for you. Many restaurants have become very accommodating to people who have food sensitivities. This may mean that they offer gluten-free or dairy-free options. If you are not sure about the restaurant's flexibility, give them a call. Find out ahead of time if they will be able to prepare food in a way that won't set off your symptoms.


Map Out a Plan

It may be a bummer that spontaneity is not in the cards for you right now because of your IBS. However, planning is so much more helpful than projecting your anxiety into a worst-case scenario future. Anticipating all possible outcomes will help keep your anxiety at bay. Important things to attend to are:

  • Figuring out your access to bathrooms on the trip to the restaurant
  • Arranging for transportation home should you need to leave early
  • Telling your companions of any accommodations needed

Don't Go Hungry

Don’t starve yourself in an attempt to keep your digestive system calm. Some people think that if there is no food, then the digestive system is in effect turned off. This is not true. Digestion is an ongoing process even in the absence of food.

Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day prior to your upcoming outing. There are several benefits to this approach:

  • Eating meals on a regular basis will help your body to regulate the process of digestion.
  • If you arrive at the restaurant hungry, you may be tempted to eat foods that are more likely to set off your system.
  • Eating a large meal can spark or strengthen intestinal cramping, leading to the very IBS attack you were hoping to avoid by starving yourself.

Be Calm Before You Go

Spend the day making sure that your body is as calm as possible. People with IBS often feel safest when they are at home. It is important to remember that geography doesn’t trigger IBS symptoms—it's anxiety that can trigger or exacerbate them. Helpful activities for keeping your body as calm as possible include:

Visualize dining out as a smooth, pleasant experience. Visualization can be a powerful tool for reducing anxiety. Imagine yourself traveling to the restaurant, sitting at the table, ordering a meal and enjoying the food with a quiet, calm body.

Walking yourself through the event in your mind allows you to identify any potential trouble spots. Go back to your game plan and figure out the most comfortable way for you to deal with any anxiety-provoking elements of the outing.


Stay Calm While You Are There

Remember to actively keep your body calm. Once you sit in your seat, take deep breaths and relax any tense muscles. Distract yourself from your digestive concerns by focusing on the décor of the restaurant and the pleasure of being out with your friends or family.

Don’t scan your body for potential signs of trouble. Scanning behavior sends a message to the brain that there is a possible threat. In response to a perceived threat, the stress response kicks in and the next thing you know your bowels are in an uproar. Again, use relaxation and distraction to keep yourself calm in the face of any twinges, rumblings, or cramps.


Find the Bathroom

Find out where the bathroom is and then try to forget about it. Don’t allow your brain to get caught up in worries about whether the bathroom is occupied. If you suffer from IBS-D, bathroom accidents are a common concern but are also relatively rare. Keeping your body as calm as possible will increase the probability that it will not release any stool until you are safely on the toilet.


Remember There Is Always an Out

Don’t perceive that ordering a meal is a situation in which you are trapped. This will only raise your anxiety and increase your risk of symptoms. The only commitment you make when you order a meal is that you must pay for the food. There is no law that says you have to stay and eat it.

If you find that you are truly too uncomfortable to enjoy the meal, feel free to excuse yourself. Just be sure to leave money to cover your cost. Don’t worry about the comfort of others. True friends and quality individuals will understand and support your decision to address your own physical needs.


Order Wisely

Choose to feed yourself a moderate amount of "safe" foods. While the definition of IBS-friendly foods differs for everyone, choosing foods that are low in FODMAPs is a good place to start.

Don't choose any of the following foods as they run the risk of strongly stimulating your gastrocolic reflex, with the result of causing intense intestinal contractions:

  • Large food portions
  • Rich, creamy, fatty, buttery foods
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Gassy foods

Watch What You Drink

Choose your drinks wisely. Although alcohol and caffeine can both be digestive system irritants, this doesn't mean that you are stuck drinking water while everyone else enjoys a fun or festive drink.

Soda is not a great option—sugar, artificial sweeteners, and carbonation may all raise your risk of experiencing unwanted symptoms. A better option is to bring your favorite herbal tea bag and ask for a cup of hot water. If you prefer iced tea, ask for a glass of ice as well.

Cranberry juice is the only juice to date that is low in FODMAPs, those carbohydrates that can contribute to IBS symptoms. For a festive non-alcoholic drink, you could have a glass of cranberry juice on ice, perhaps with a splash of club soda if you are feeling brave.

Using the helpful research on FODMAPs from the researchers at Monash University, you should be safe with one glass of any of the following:

  • Beer
  • Gin
  • Vodka
  • Whiskey
  • Wine (red, white, or sparkling)

Have Fun

Focus on having a good time and enjoying the company of others. We are social creatures—we all need to have contact with others for optimum physical and mental health. And, the distraction of conversation with people that you care about is a wonderful remedy for any pain and discomfort.

Even if you are not feeling at the top of your game, remind yourself that you could be stuck at home alone feeling poorly. At least you are out, living your life, and experiencing the pleasure of being served food that you did not have to cook. And, most importantly, you are connecting with the lives and experiences of others.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.