The Worst Trigger Foods for IBS

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the last thing you want to do is eat something that will make your symptoms worse. Unfortunately, some foods have a reputation for being IBS trigger foods because of their effect on your digestive system.

But every person with IBS responds to food differently. Therefore, you might find that you can handle food that is not well tolerated by your friend who also has IBS.

Using a food diary to track what you eat and how you feel can help you determine which foods contribute to your digestive symptoms. You'll also need to become careful about reading labels.

This article lists 12 common IBS culprits.

Greasy Food

Young Woman Eating Burger At Restaurant With Outdoor Seating

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

The gastrocolic reflex is your body's natural response to have a bowel movement soon after eating. Food with a high fat content can increase the strength of these intestinal contractions.

If you have a sensitive digestive system, you should avoid fatty meats and fried food. For example:

  • Pizza
  • Sausage
  • French fries
  • Fried chicken or fish 
  • Foods with heavy or creamy gravy
  • Steaks and burgers (red meat)

This doesn't mean you need to avoid fat altogether. In fact, foods with healthy fat, such as fish and nuts, can be quite beneficial for your digestive and overall health.

Dairy Products

Ice cream flavors on display in a store freezer
Saibal / Getty Images

Many people suffer from a condition known as lactose intolerance, where they can't digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance can lead to digestive symptoms like bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.

Common dairy products include:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream

You may find that you can enjoy some cheeses that have low lactose levels. These include Brie, Camembert, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Some people are also able to enjoy lactose-free milk products.

High-FODMAP Fruits

Apples and pears on display for sale
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Researchers at Monash University in Australia have tested various fruits for their FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) content. These short-chained carbohydrates include fructose, a sugar in fruit that some people have difficulty absorbing.

Foods higher in FODMAPs may cause problems for people who have IBS. That's because they contain types of sugars that are not absorbed well by the small intestine. For example, the following fruits are high in FODMAPs:

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Blackberries
  • Cherries
  • Grapefruit
  • Mango
  • Pears
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Plums and prunes
  • Pomegranates
  • Watermelon

Fortunately, some fruits are low-FODMAP foods.

Many people with IBS report that they have some difficulty with raw fruits. However, cooking fruits may make them easier for your system to handle.

High-FODMAP Vegetables

Roasted organic cauliflower steak on baking dish
istetiana / Getty Images

Like fruits, vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. However, some vegetables are also high in FODMAPs. Therefore, they may contribute to your IBS symptoms:

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Scallions (white parts)
  • Shallots
  • Snow peas
  • Sugar snap peas

Don't avoid vegetables altogether, though. Vegetables are essential for your overall health and the health of your gut bacteria

Like fruits, some vegetables may be harder to tolerate if they are eaten raw. However, you may find that you can handle vegetables better if they are cooked or juiced.

Wheat

Close-up view of wheat with blurry sky in the background

Gregoria Gregoriou Crowe fine art and creative photography / Getty Images

Although a diet high in fiber is important for overall health, certain high-fiber foods may cause problems for some people.

People with celiac disease cannot eat a protein called gluten. This protein is found in some whole grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It causes the body's immune system to attack the small intestine, which can damage the gut and lead to serious health problems.

Even if you don't have celiac disease, you may have difficulty eating foods made with gluten-containing grains. That could be because they contain fructans, ​a type of FODMAP that is bothersome for many people with IBS.

Gluten-containing foods include many popular items like pasta, bread, and baked goods. Fortunately, gluten-free options are fairly easy to find.

Beans and Legumes

Legumes on different spoons

Westend61 / Getty Images

You have probably learned the hard way that beans and IBS do not play nicely together. This is because beans and legumes contain carbohydrates that are poorly digested. Thus they are available for gut bacteria to feed on, which often results in intestinal gas.

These foods may be likely to produce gas:

  • Baked beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Butter beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Kidney beans
  • Lima beans
  • Soybeans
  • Split peas

If you are a vegetarian, you may find that it is challenging to meet your protein needs without eating beans and legumes. Sometimes small amounts of well-rinsed, canned lentils or chickpeas are well tolerated by people with IBS.

Spicy Foods

Chili peppers for sale in basket
Jason Langley / Getty Images

Chili peppers are a common ingredient in spicy foods. They are usually the culprit that sets your mouth aflame.

A 2008 study found that people with IBS have a greater number of pain sensors that react to a substance in chili peppers. More recent studies confirm that spicy food may contribute to the abdominal pain seen in people with IBS.

Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar and sweetener packets in a container

Sharon Pruitt / Getty Images

Artificial sweeteners, typically those ending in "-ol" are found in many sugar-free and diet foods. They are often poorly tolerated and may produce gas and bloating.

Be sure to read the labels of the following products carefully:

  • Sugar-free gum
  • Sugar substitute packets
  • Sugar-free ice cream

Table sugar, maple syrup, and stevia are some sweeteners that you may better tolerate.

Soda

Restaurant table with a soda drink
LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

Although you may love your soda, it may not love you. Carbonated (fizzy) drinks can contribute to problems with intestinal gas and bloating.

The high amount of sugar in regular soda may add to an imbalance in your gut bacteria. This can lead to further gas. Diet soda is no better—your gut may react negatively to artificial sweeteners.

Water, iced tea, or diluted cranberry juice are much better options.

Alcohol

Three glasses of rum on a barrel.

David Sanger / Getty Images

Don't overlook what you are drinking when you consider IBS triggers. For example, alcohol has a longstanding reputation as being a GI irritant.

Rum, in particular, is high in FODMAPs. So are many mixers.

This doesn't mean you can't occasionally enjoy a drink. However, probably your safest bet is to stick to a small amount of red wine.

Coffee and Other Drinks with Caffeine

Woman pouring coffee from pour over coffee maker into red cup

Seth Restaino / Getty Images

It may be hard to live without your morning cup of coffee. But caffeine is known to be an IBS trigger for some people.

If you are used to having caffeine, you are likely to have some caffeine withdrawal for the first few days after you give up coffee. Even so, it may be worth trying it to see if your IBS symptoms improve.

Big Meals

Freshly prepared meal of English breakfast and spaghetti bolognese
d3sign / Getty Images

It's not just what you eat, but also how much. Avoiding large meals can be part of your strategy to eliminate triggers. Graze throughout the day or have smaller meals instead.

Summary

IBS is a condition that results in abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Often, certain foods trigger IBS attacks.

Learning which foods trigger your attacks can help you manage your IBS. For example, you may find that keeping a food diary helps you pinpoint which foods make you feel bad.

Foods that are high in FODMAPs contain types of sugars that are poorly absorbed by the small intestine. These are found in certain grains, fruits, and vegetables.

In addition, large meals, alcohol, caffeine, gassy foods, and spicy foods are common IBS culprits.

A Word From Verywell

Living with IBS can make mealtime frustratingly complicated. But finding and avoiding the trigger foods in your diet is worth the effort if it helps relieve your symptoms and reduce IBS attacks.

Remember, though, that eating a balanced diet is also critical for your overall health. Don't eliminate entire food categories, such as vegetables. Find the ones that work best for you so you can ensure good nutrition.

Was this page helpful?
11 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.
  1. Buscail C, Sabate JM, Bouchoucha M, et al. Western dietary pattern is associated with irritable bowel syndrome in the French NutriNet cohort. Nutrients. 2017;9(9). doi:10.3390/nu9090986

  2. Xiong L, Wang Y, Gong X, Chen M. Prevalence of lactose intolerance in patients with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome: data from a tertiary center in southern China. J Health Popul Nutr. 2017;36(1):38. doi:10.1186/s41043-017-0113-1

  3. Varney J, Barrett J, Scarlata K, Catsos P, Gibson PR, Muir JG. FODMAPs: food composition, defining cutoff values and international application. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;32 Suppl 1:53-61. doi:10.1111/jgh.13698

  4. Volta U, Pinto-Sanchez MI, Boschetti E, Caio G, De Giorgio R, Verdu EF. Dietary triggers in irritable bowel syndrome: Is there a role for gluten? J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2016;22(4):547-557. doi:10.5056/jnm16069

  5. Cozma-Petruţ A, Loghin F, Miere D, Dumitraşcu DL. Diet in irritable bowel syndrome: What to recommend, not what to forbid to patients! World J Gastroenterol. 2017;23(21):3771-3783. doi:10.3748/wjg.v23.i21.3771

  6. Akbar A, Yiangou Y, Facer P, Walters JR, Anand P, Ghosh S. Increased capsaicin receptor TRPV1-expressing sensory fibres in irritable bowel syndrome and their correlation with abdominal pain. Gut. 2008;57(7):923-9. doi:10.1136/gut.2007.138982

  7. Lee S, Masaoka T, Han H, et al. A prospective study on symptom generation according to spicy food intake and TRPV1 genotypes in functional dyspepsia patients. Neurogastroenterology & Motility. 2016;28(9):1401-1408. doi:10.1111/nmo.12841

  8. Ruiz-Ojeda FJ, Plaza-Díaz J, Sáez-Lara MJ, Gil A. Effects of sweeteners on the gut microbiota: A review of experimental studies and clinical trials. Adv Nutr. 2019;10(suppl_1):S31-S48. doi:10.1093/advances/nmy037

  9. Reding KW, Cain KC, Jarrett ME, Eugenio MD, Heitkemper MM. Relationship between patterns of alcohol consumption and gastrointestinal symptoms among patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108(2):270-6. doi:10.1038/ajg.2012.414

  10. Capili B, Anastasi JK, Chang M. Addressing the role of food in irritable bowel syndrome symptom management. J Nurse Pract. 2016;12(5):324-329. doi:10.1016/j.nurpra.2015.12.007

  11. Okawa Y, Fukudo S, Sanada H. Specific foods can reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and functional constipation: a review. Biopsychosoc Med. 2019;13:10. doi:10.1186/s13030-019-0152-5

Additional Reading