What is a Low-Residue Diet?

In This Article

Boiled egg
J Shepherd / Getty Images

A low-residue diet limits how much fiber you can eat with the goal of allowing the bowel (especially the large intestine) to rest. There are other additional restrictions that differentiate a low-residue diet from a low-fiber diet, such as limiting dairy. Leafy greens, milk products, whole grains, and other foods tend to leave undigested parts or "residue" in the colon.

Benefits

Getting plenty of fiber in your diet is usually a good thing. Each type of plant fiber has many health benefits, ranging from aiding in blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight control to promoting regular bowel movements. 

However, fiber can also be hard for your body to digest. Your doctor may suggest you limit fiber if you have a digestive disorder, are preparing for or recovering from surgery, or experience bowel-related complications from radiation treatment. 

For example, if you're diagnosed with diverticulitis or inflammatory bowel disease your doctor might suggest limiting foods with fiber and those that leave a residue.

Similarly, while there is only limited evidence concerning low-residue diets that include solid food, research has demonstrated a primarily liquid low-residue diet may be beneficial for people who have Crohn’s disease.

For people who don't have bowel disorders, research has shown low-residue diets may be a beneficial part of colonoscopy prep.

Keep in mind that medical professionals don't agree on the exact definition of residue or how to determine limits. Research is limited and can be contradictory.

How It Works

Foods that are high in fiber, especially “roughage,” tend to leave behind some plant particles in your colon that can’t be digested. This undigested matter mostly comes from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, though dairy products can also leave residue behind.

These leftovers don’t usually present a problem. In fact, it’s the residue that helps keep stools bulky and moving through the intestines. However, in situations when your bowel needs to be slowed down to allow for healing, adjusting your diet is the primary way to facilitate this.

When you eat low-fiber foods, your intestines don’t need to work as hard because little, if any, undigested material left behind. With less waste to get rid of, you will have fewer bowel movements.

Foods in this category are also less likely to stimulate contractions of the intestines (peristalsis). Creating a meal plan that puts as little demand on the digestive tract as possible is the rationale behind a low-residue diet

The typical recommendation for daily fiber intake is at least 25 grams per day for an adult eating a 2,000 calorie diet. If your doctor suggests a low-residue diet, you’ll be eating just 10-15 grams of fiber per day and have a few other limits on the types of food you can eat. 

Your doctor and a registered dietician or nutritionist can help you put together meals that work with these dietary restrictions and provide adequate nutrition. 

Duration

Even if you don’t have a digestive disorder, there are certain times when your doctor might recommend you follow a low-residue diet. 

Your doctor may suggest changing your diet for a day or two before you start the bowel preparation for a colonoscopy. Some people find eating a low-fiber or low-residue diet for up to a week before the procedure makes the prep easier. 

If you've recently had certain types of surgery, such as colectomy, you may need to stay on a low-residue diet until your intestines finish healing. The diet can also be used to transition from a clear liquid back to a regular diet after surgery or if you develop a bowel obstruction. 

If you will be following a low-residue diet for a short period of time (such as before having a colonoscopy) you should be able to oversee it your own. If you're using a low-residue diet for a longer period to manage a medical condition, you will need to work closely with your doctor. 

What to Eat

While your choices will be limited on a low-residue diet, it is possible to meet your daily nutritional requirements if you include as much variety as you can.

Even if two people have the same symptoms, they won't necessarily feel better eating the same diet. Research indicates people with gastrointestinal disorders use trial and error to determine which foods contribute to their symptoms. Some people with diverticular disease, for example, actually report fewer symptoms when eating a high-fiber, rather than restricted fiber, diet.

Use the low-residue diet recommendations as a guide. Here are a few examples of the most common foods allowed on a low-residue diet as well as those you may want to avoid.

Compliant Foods

  • White Bread

  • Cream of Wheat or Rice

  • Applesauce

  • Banana

  • Canned/Cooked Fruit and Vegetables

  • Margarine or Butter

  • White Potato

  • Eggs

  • Broth or Bouillon

  • Tofu

  • White Rice

  • Creamy Peanut Butter

  • Well-Cooked Meat, Poultry, Fish

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Whole Grains

  • Nuts, Seeds, Legumes

  • Garlic

  • Broccoli

  • Corn

  • Dried Fruit

  • Alcohol

  • Chocolate

  • Meat with Gristle

  • Oats, Rye, Barley

  • Sauerkraut 

  • Pickles

  • Berries

  • Popcorn

Fruit: Fruits like peaches, apricots, and bananas are fine as long as you remove pits, seeds, peels, and skin. Fruits with seeds not easily removed, like berries, are not approved. Canned fruit and fruit cocktail cups may be approved, depending on which fruits are included. Avoid dried fruit, especially raisins, figs, dates, and prunes. Most fruit juice is acceptable as long as you choose varieties without pulp. You will want to avoid high-fiber prune juice, however. 

Vegetables: Peeled vegetables that are well-cooked (or canned) are approved, including carrots, beets, pumpkin, and green beans. Raw vegetables are typically too difficult to digest—particularly chewy and tough varieties like celery. You may choose to completely avoid leafy greens like lettuce, though they may be tolerable when cooked. White potato can be eaten mashed or boiled without the skin. Avoid any pickled vegetables or sauerkraut. Cooking oils can be used as tolerated. 

Grains: Stick to bread and pasta made with refined carbohydrates. Choose white rice instead of brown rice, wild rice, or rice pilaf. Saltine crackers and melba toast are approved. Use white bread or sourdough for making toast and sandwiches instead of whole grain bread like pumpernickel and rye. Avoid high-fiber snacks such as popcorn. Try hot breakfast cereals like Cream of Wheat or rice instead of oatmeal. Grits are another option. Cold cereal choices include puffed rice or corn flakes. Avoid bran and any cereals with nuts, seeds, berries, and/or chocolate.

Dairy: Limit milk products to no more than two cups per day. Low-lactose dairy options like cottage cheese may be tolerable. Yogurt can be part of your daily servings of dairy, but choose plain flavors without added nuts, grains, or chocolate. Fats like butter and margarine are approved as tolerated.

Protein: Eggs (soft boiled or poached). No nuts and seeds, however, nut butter is approved if you stick to creamy rather than “crunchy” varieties. Choose lean meat without gristle and cook until tender. Avoid frying meat or adding heavy spices or seasonings. Tofu is an approved protein source for meals and can also be used as a base for shakes and smoothies. Avoid beans and legumes including peas and lentils. 

Beverages: Drink plenty of water. Carbonated beverages like seltzer are allowed, though they may increase symptoms of gas. Caffeine from coffee, tea, and soda are aggravating for some people with digestive disorders, though they are permitted on a low-residue diet. If you have a cup of decaffeinated coffee or tea, make sure it's without creamer or milk. Avoid all alcoholic beverages including wine, beer, and cocktails. If your doctor suggests caloric or nutritional supplements (such as Boost or Ensure) you may want to look for options that do not contain dairy.

Desserts: Plain cakes and cookies made with refined white flour and sugar are typically easy to digest. Sweets that contain chocolate, coconut, nuts, seeds, or dried fruit should be avoided. Gelatin and ice pops are especially helpful if you are on a clear liquid diet. Jelly, jam, and honey are approved as tolerated, given they don’t contain seeds or pits. 

Recommended Timing

Before you start a new diet, it’s helpful to think about how you generally feel after you eat. If you have digestive symptoms you’re hoping to manage through diet, understanding the impact of meal timing is important. 

For example, you might find you feel best when you can sit down to three regular, balanced, meals each day. You might find having smaller meals more frequently, along with nutritious snacks, is better for your digestion.

Some people find certain combinations of food not only suit their tastes but give them energy without causing or worsening digestive symptoms. They may avoid specific combinations of food if they notice it tends to make them feel unwell.

If you have a digestive disorder, when you eat and how much you eat at one time may depend on whether or not you’re having symptoms. Some people with these conditions feel avoiding certain foods helps prevent flares. Others choose to eat a consistent diet on the same schedule regardless of whether they have symptoms.

If you experience frequent gas and bloating, make sure you are eating slowly and chewing your food well. You may want to limit gas-producing carbonated beverages and gum.

Cooking Tips

When you’re preparing food, think about how you can make it softer or less dense. Generally speaking, frying or grilling food can make it “heavier” for your digestion while methods like poaching or steaming tend to lighten it. Many foods can also be easily microwaved. 

Some foods may be fine to eat as long as you remove the parts that are more difficult to digest. Remember to peel vegetables, remove seeds from fruits, and avoid candy or baked goods that contain nuts.

You’ll also want to think about ingredients a food has been cooked in or with. Dense fats like butter or foods topped with cheese can make a relatively low-fiber meal harder on your gut. 

If spices or seasonings are irritating to your intestines, you’ll want to leave them out of recipes or avoid dishes that include them. 

For example, a heavily-seasoned grilled steak may be too dry and tough for your body to digest. If you’re looking for a more digestible meat option, try a piece of tender-cooked, plain, skinless chicken breast.

Apples are another example. A crisp, ripe, apple is a nutritious and satisfying snack, but the fiber from the peel may be more than your intestines can handle. While it lacks the crunch, a cup of applesauce is easier to digest and still provides nutrition. 

Modifications 

A low-fiber or low-residue diet can be difficult to navigate if you have diabetes. Many of the recommended foods (such as white bread) are simple carbohydrates, which will impact your blood sugar

If you have diabetes and need to be on a low-residue diet, continue to pay attention to portion sizes and count carbohydrates for each meal and snack. When choosing low-residue foods, focus on approved veggies and lean protein. 

Eating a well-balanced diet is especially important if you are pregnant or nursing. If you have a digestive disorder, pregnancy may exacerbate symptoms. Your doctor might suggest you make some temporary changes to your diet or take supplements.

If you are on a low-residue diet while preparing for a colonoscopy, you will also need to avoid red or purple food and drinks (such as beets, purple sports drinks, or red Jell-O). If these foods temporarily discolor the tissue of your color, it may look like blood during the scope. 

If a low-residue diet isn't enough to treat your symptoms, your doctor might suggest you try a probiotic and/or you may be prescribed a course of antibiotics.

Probiotic supplements don't treat digestive disorders, but an imbalance of gut bacteria may cause or worsen symptoms. Antibiotics may be necessary if you have Small Bowel Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) or another type of bacterial infection, or if you are undergoing surgery.

Considerations

Making changes to your diet requires you to think about more than what you can and can't eat. Here are a few other considerations to keep in mind.

General Nutrition

Eating a restricted diet can make it difficult to consistently eat enough calories and maintain a nutritious, balanced diet. Your doctor may suggest you take nutritional supplements to help prevent deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals

Your doctor may order blood tests to check your vitamin and electrolyte levels. If you have a deficiency, slight adjustments to your diet or taking supplements may be all that's needed to correct it.

If you need to be on a low-residue diet for a longer period of time, you may want to work with a registered dietitian to ensure you’re eating as well-balanced a diet as possible. 

Sustainability and Practicality

Many foods approved on a low-residue diet are plentiful at markets and grocery stores. Stock up on nonperishable items like boxed pasta and canned goods to have on hand if symptoms pop up suddenly. 

If you are unable to prepare fruits and vegetables according to the diet (peeling and cooking, for instance) many varieties can be bought pre-cut, pre-cooked, or already peeled. You can also get pureed versions of many fruits and vegetables which can be eaten as-is or added to smoothies. 

Safety

Limited diets like a low-residue diet aren’t usually meant for long-term use. If you do need to heavily restrict the types of food you eat, you’ll need to check in with your doctor regularly. 

If you’re eating a primarily bland diet that doesn’t have much variety, it will be difficult to get all the nutrients you need. You may also find it hard to eat enough calories each day to fuel your body. Your doctor may provide supplements to help. 

In severe cases, you may need a feeding tube or IV nutrition, especially if you are on a liquid-only diet for complete bowel rest after surgery or a medical emergency such as a bowel obstruction

Flexibility

Whenever you're planning to change up how you eat, you'll need to take the reality of your day-to-day schedule into account. Some diets can be challenging if you can't plan ahead, but many approved foods on a low-residue diet are readily available at the grocery store or can be easily packed as a snack. 

Even dining out on a low-residue diet is possible as long as you ask about how food is prepared, what ingredients are included in the dish, and know when to ask for modifications (such as swapping white bread instead of wheat). 

Dietary Restrictions

If you follow a special diet for another reason, such as a food allergy, you’ll need to carefully consider any diet that further restricts what you’re allowed to eat. 

For example, if you're on a gluten-free diet you probably already avoid many of the whole grains and carbohydrates that aren't on the approved low-residue food list.

However, you'll need to pay careful attention to the ingredients commonly used to make gluten-free bread, pasta, and cereals, including nuts, seeds, and brown rice. 

If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, low-residue animal products, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, would be excluded. The typical alternative sources of protein for plant-based diets, like beans and legumes, are not approved for a low-residue diet. 

Support and Community

If you are struggling or have questions, your doctor and other members of your health care team can give you practical answers and reassurance.

While your care team can be helpful, there may be times when you feel like you'd rather talk to other people who are eating the same kind of diet themselves. Others who have "been there" can give you a different perspective and share what has worked for them, as well as provide a listening ear when you need to share your own fears and frustrations.

Ask your doctor if your local community offers in-person support groups. You can also research online groups or message boards to join. If you have a specific condition, such as ulcerative colitis, look for hashtags on social media to find patient-run support networks. 

Cost

Staples of a low-residue diet like white rice and plain pasta can often be purchased in bulk for a relatively low-cost. Other items like canned fruit and vegetables are often inexpensive and can be used to stock your pantry

Fresh produce is often most affordable when you buy in season. Buying locally or joining your local farm share program is another way to save money on the fruits and vegetables you buy regularly. You may want to learn about canning food yourself or planting a garden in your own backyard. 

If you need to take nutritional supplements or probiotics, you may find them to be a high-cost part of your diet. Ask your doctor and health insurance provider if these items can be prescribed for you. If your health insurance won’t cover the cost, ask about promotions, coupons, or patient assistance programs for prescriptions. 

Side Effects

If you are following a low-residue diet for a longer period of time, you’ll want to be aware of the possible signs of a nutritional deficiency. 

Fatigue and shortness of breath may indicate iron deficiency anemia. If you aren’t getting enough Vitamin C, you can develop symptoms of scurvy such as bleeding of your gums, loss of appetite, weight loss, and skin changes. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause neurological symptoms such as trouble remembering things, numbness and tingling in your limbs, and balance problems. 

You may also experience constipation while on a low-fiber diet. Staying hydrated will help you avoid constipation. It will also help to remember that a low-fiber diet doesn't mean you can't have any fiber at all. You may be able to take a fiber supplement.

Energy and General Health

When we’re hungry and grab something to eat, fiber is one of the components in our diets that satisfies our hunger the best. We tend to feel full for longer when we eat foods that are good sources of fiber

If you’re eating a low-residue diet that’s low in fiber, you may find that your meals are not as satisfying. You may feel hungry more often or sooner after having a meal. You might need to snack more frequently throughout the day. Increasing your fluid intake can also help. 

Low-Residue vs. Other Diets

A low-residue diet has very specific requirements, but it is similar to other types of diets commonly used to treat bowel disorders. 

Low-Fiber Diet

A low-fiber diet is part of a low-residue diet. The main difference between the two diets is that if you’re following a low-residue diet, you’ll have added restrictions. 

One of the biggest differences between a low-fiber diet and low-residue diet is how much dairy is allowed.

Dairy is allowed on a low-fiber diet to the degree you personally tolerate it. But if you're on a low-residue diet, you can only have 2 cups of dairy products a day.

Even though dairy isn't a major source of dietary fiber, it does leave undigested matter behind in the colon, hence the need for the additional restrictions.

Your daily fiber allowance on both a low-fiber and low-residue diet will be about 10-15 grams per day.

Low-FODMAP Diet

Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) are found in many of the foods we eat. Some people find FODMAP-containing foods cause or worsen symptoms of digestive disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), such as bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. 

A low-FODMAP diet is similar to a low-residue diet but not nearly as restricted.

Many of the foods you can eat on a low-FODMAP diet are not permitted on a low-residue diet, including nuts and seeds, broccoli, brown rice, and oats. Foods with a lot of fiber such as legumes and beans, apples, and okra are also considered high-FODMAP foods.

Dairy typically isn’t allowed on a low-FODMAP diet, but on a low-residue diet, you can have less than 2 cups of dairy each day if you tolerate it. 

BRAT Diet

The BRAT Diet is commonly used to treat temporary digestive upsets like a viral “stomach flu” or food poisoning. BRAT is an acronym for bananas, plain white rice, applesauce, and toast made with refined white bread; foods that are easy to digest if you are experiencing symptoms like nausea and diarrhea

While the BRAT Diet works well in the short-term, you shouldn’t stay on the diet for a long time unless your doctor is supervising you. It’s difficult to get all the energy and nutrition your body needs if you’re only eating small amounts of a limited group of foods. 

A Word From Verywell 

If you have a digestive disorder, are preparing for a colonoscopy, or need to let your bowel rest after surgery, your doctor may prescribe a low-residue diet. While this diet can be helpful in the short-term, eating a limited diet for a long time can make it difficult for you to get adequate nutrition. If you are using the diet to treat a condition, make sure you work closely with your doctor and other members of your health care team (such as a nutritionist) to maintain your overall health and wellbeing.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources