What to Eat When You Have Ulcerative Colitis

In This Article

If you have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, your doctor may have told you that making changes to your diet can help you manage symptoms. As with any health condition, one way of eating won’t necessarily work for everyone who has ulcerative colitis. However, if you can identify foods and beverages that are more likely to give you a flare-up of ulcerative colitis symptoms, it may be easier for you to manage your symptoms. Some people change their diet to avoid trigger foods when having a flare-up while others make long-term changes. It is important to ensure good nutrition no matter which eating pattern you choose.

Benefits

Many people who have ulcerative colitis or another form of IBD find a diet that works well for them and choose to remain on it even when they are not actively having symptoms (a period of remission), as it may help them keep flares at bay.

Research has indicated that many people who have mild-to-moderate ulcerative colitis benefit from making changes to their diet in conjunction with other treatments (such as medication). 

Studies have also indicated that the quality of life for people with ulcerative colitis and other forms of IBD may be particularly influenced by their diet (what researchers refer to as “food-related quality of life”).

How It Works

If your digestive tract is inflamed because of a condition like ulcerative colitis, certain kinds of food and drink may worsen your symptoms. For instance, spicy foods or those that are high in fat (like fried foods) may trigger certain symptoms.

People who have severe ulcerative colitis may also experience certain complications, such as strictures, that require them to avoid entire food groups or adhere to a certain type of diet for a longer period of time.

Some people with severe inflammatory bowel disease may occasionally need to use special diets, like a liquid-only diet, to give their body time to heal.

In general, the more fiber a food has, the more work your intestines have to do to break it down during digestion. When you are not feeling well and have ulcerative colitis symptoms, you may find that sticking to bland food that doesn’t have a lot of fiber and is, therefore, easier to digest helps reduce your discomfort. 

Foods that don’t leave a lot of undigested material behind in your colon (called low-residue foods) may also be helpful if you are having a flare of ulcerative colitis symptoms. When you have less of this food residue in your intestines, you won’t have as many bowel movements.

While the specifics of your ulcerative colitis diet will depend on your individual tastes, preferences, and other dietary needs, choosing foods that can easily move through your intestines without causing too much irritation is a safe bet if you’re trying to lessen or prevent symptoms.

Duration

As is often the case with chronic inflammatory bowel disease, how often you need to adopt an ulcerative colitis diet and how long you need to stick with it will depend on many factors, such as how severe the condition is, whether or not you have complications, other health problems and dietary needs you have, as well as the treatments your doctor has prescribed.

If you have symptoms often, you may find that paying attention to the composition of your diet is an essential part of managing the condition. Some people with ulcerative colitis only adjust their diet when they’re having symptoms, but others may choose to follow a special diet all the time because they feel it helps prevent flares of symptoms.

You can work your doctor, as well as other health professionals who have specific knowledge of nutrition (such as a registered dietitian) to figure out what you need to include in your ulcerative colitis diet to meet your needs.

In some cases, your doctor may ask you to follow a specific restricted diet to help you prepare for a procedure or recovery from surgery. For example, if you need to have a colonoscopy to assess your ulcerative colitis’ progress, you will need to follow a special diet as part of the prep for the procedure.

If you have certain complications from IBD, such as narrowing of the bowel (strictures), develop a bowel obstruction, or need to have surgery, your doctor may ask you to follow a soft diet until you are healed. These adjustments are usually temporary. Your doctor will let you know when you can begin to transition back to your regular diet.

What to Eat

If you have ulcerative colitis and are wondering what you should (or should not) eat, know that the specifics will depend on other factors besides the condition. You likely have your own unique taste preferences, for one, and you may have other dietary needs that need to be addressed (especially if you have another health condition, such as diabetes). 

It might require some trial and error, but you can create a balanced and nutritious ulcerative colitis diet that meets your individual tastes and nutritional needs along with helping you control your symptoms. 

Pay attention to how your body responds to the food you eat. Do certain meals make you feel worse? Are there some “go-to” foods that you reach for during a flare? These factors, as well as some general guidelines, can help you create your ulcerative colitis diet plan. 

Compliant Foods

  • Plain pasta noodles made from refined white flour

  • Low-fat yogurt (as tolerated) 

  • White rice 

  • Applesauce

  • Bananas

  • Sourdough or gluten-free bread

  • Saltines, rice crackers 

  • Smooth nut butter (as tolerated)

  • White potato

  • Chicken breast without skin, lean cut of pork

  • Honeydew melon, cantaloupe 

  • Tofu

  • Soft cooked eggs

  • Clear soups and broth

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Prunes, prune juice

  • Raw fruit with skin or seeds 

  • Raw vegetables 

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower)

  • Onions

  • Corn

  • Whole-grain bread, pasta, crackers

  • Milk and cheese

  • Beans

  • Lunchmeat

  • Tough, fatty, cuts of meat

  • Cereal or granola with nuts/fruit

  • Bran

  • Dried fruit 

  • Whole nuts 

  • Popcorn

  • Butter, coconut, cream 

  • Pastries, cakes, cookies, candy, chocolate

  • Sugar substitutes such as xylitol and sorbitol 

  • Greasy, fatty, spicy, or fried foods

  • Coffee

  • Alcohol

Fruits and Vegetables: Raw fruits and veggies may be too irritating for your sensitive gut if you have ulcerative colitis. However, many can be made easier to digest by peeling, cutting, and cooking. There are some high-fiber fruits and vegetables you may want to avoid, such as corn, broccoli, and prunes, as they tend to make more intestinal gas. 

Grains: When you’re having symptoms, choose bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates that are low in fiber. Usually, this means they’re made from refined white flour instead of whole grains. White rice is another low-fiber option that can be soothing and easy to digest. Avoid brown rice, wild rice, or rice pilaf.

Choose sourdough bread for toast rather than a fiber-filled option like multigrain. Hot cereal, grits, and packets of oatmeal that are low in sugar may also work. Avoid any kind of cereal, bread, or granola that has dried fruit or nuts. 

Dairy: Milk products can be hard to digest during a flare of ulcerative colitis symptoms even if you normally tolerate lactose just fine. Low-fat yogurt that doesn’t have any added sugar—especially if it’s rich in probiotics—can be a suitable option.  

Protein: Lean protein like skinless chicken breast plainly cooked can work well both when you are having symptoms as well as when you’re symptom-free. Be careful not to overcook the meat, avoid frying, and don’t add any butter, spices, or rich sauces. 

If you don’t eat meat and rely on plant-based protein staples like beans and legumes, keep in mind that these foods can cause gas. Tofu or tempeh are other options for non-meat protein and they are often soft or "silken," making the easily digested and versatile. 

Some research has shown that walnuts may have protective properties against ulcerative colitis. If you can’t digest whole nuts, try small portions of smooth nut butter. 

Desserts: Rich snacks and desserts like cake, cookies, ice cream, and pudding are often too high in fat and sugar, making them hard to digest. Plain gelatin can be a treat, as well as hard candy and gum. However, if you choose sugar-free varieties, be sure to look at the list of ingredients. Sugar substitutes like xylitol and sorbitol can cause diarrhea, gas, and bloating. 

Beverages: Carbonated drinks, caffeine, and alcoholic beverages can be irritating for people with digestive disorders. While staying hydrated is important, stick to water or beverages recommended by your doctors such as electrolyte-replacement drinks and liquid nutritional supplements. 

Recommended Timing 

If you’re having a flare of ulcerative colitis symptoms, you may find that you feel better eating a little bit at a time rather than having a large meal. As long as you eat frequently enough to get adequate calories and nutrition, this strategy can be effective. 

Some people with IBD find eating this way helps them manage their condition even during periods when they are symptom-free. People with ulcerative colitis may also prefer to eat and drink at separate times to avoid feeling overly full or getting full too quickly when they are having meals. 

Cooking Tips

Not only does cooking provide you with the opportunity to change how your food tastes, but it also gives you the chance to alter the food’s physical properties to make it easier for your gut to digest. 

If you have ulcerative colitis, you may want to avoid adding spices, oils, butter, lard, or cheese to your food, as these products can be difficult to digest and/or irritating to your intestines. The exception is olive oil, which in small amounts (such as what you’d use for cooking) may help decrease the risk of ulcerative colitis, according to research from the University of East Anglia. They presented a paper on a small human research study. Most of the studies have been done on mice, showing good effects of extra-virgin olive oil on markers of inflammation and the gut biome.

You’ll also want to avoid any food that has been fried, as the batters make these meals especially greasy, dense, and high in fat. 

Foods that are high in fiber, such as raw veggies, may be easier for you to digest if you cook them. You’ll also want to make sure you remove any stems, seeds, and peels from fresh produce as you’re preparing to cook. 

Steaming vegetables can help break down the tough fibers in the produce, meaning your digestive system has to do less work. Most produce can be poached, boiled, grilled, blanched, and even microwaved. 

Modifications

If you have other health conditions or food allergies that require you to pay special attention to what you eat, you may need to modify your ulcerative colitis diet. 

There may be situations where you need to make significant, but temporary, changes to your diet. One example is if you become pregnant. IBD symptoms may increase during this time, in part because of the fluctuation in hormones which may affect the gut. But you also may have fewer flares during this time—everyone is different. 

If you are having a flare of ulcerative colitis symptoms while you’re pregnant, or even just trying to manage gastrointestinal symptoms related to pregnancy, the most important consideration for your diet is ensuring you get enough nutrition. 

Considerations

General Nutrition

Eating a varied diet that provides all the nutrition you need can be challenging if you avoid or limit certain types or groups of food. If you have a flare of ulcerative colitis symptoms or experience intense complications, such as bowel obstruction, you may find it difficult to eat enough to meet your daily caloric needs. 

It’s important that you talk with your doctor if you have concerns, especially if you are not sure if you are eating enough or if what you are eating provides the nutrition you need. 

Your doctor may recommend that you work with a dietitian or nutritionist, especially if they would like you to use supplements to address the nutritional gaps in your diet. 

If you are malnourished, have lost a lot of weight, have experienced complications, or are recovering from surgery, your doctor may want you to have a feeding tube. Usually this is only a short-term measure, however, some people with severe ulcerative colitis may need to use parenteral or enteral nutrition for longer. 

Support and Community

If you have a chronic illness like ulcerative colitis, you might find joining a support group to be helpful. These support groups can either be in-person or online and typically include a community of patients who come together to discuss questions and concerns about living with ulcerative colitis as well as options for treatment. Dietary challenges and practices may fall under both categories. 

Even if you are not specifically discussing diet, being part of a support group can often be helpful just by providing a space for you to engage with others who know what it’s like to go through what you’re dealing with. While you may have support from your doctor, family, and friends, if they don’t have the same condition you do they may not always understand how you feel. 

Having a safe space to commiserate with others who have shared experiences and worries can help you cope with the emotional aspects of having ulcerative colitis. 

Cost

For the most part, the foods you can choose from when creating an ulcerative colitis diet are generally affordable. Some staples, like white rice, can be even cheaper if you buy them in bulk. 

If you want to try your hand at pureeing foods to make them easier to digest, the basic kitchen implements you’ll need (like blenders or handheld food processors) can be purchased for around $20. 

Popular brands of liquid nutritional supplements you can buy online, at the pharmacy, or the grocery store, can be expensive—especially if you need to drink one or more per day. If your doctor wants you to make these products part of your ulcerative colitis diet, find out if your insurance will cover or reimburse you for the cost. 

Side Effects

Any time you change how you eat it may take some time for your body to adjust. If you start eating more or less fiber, for example, you will likely notice a change in your bowel habits. 

If you notice these symptoms aren’t improving or are getting worse, tell your doctor. Sometimes, people following a low-fiber diet experience constipation. While it might be as simple as drinking more water or taking a fiber supplement, if you have a chronic digestive disorder it’s important to mention any changes in your bowel movements to your doctor. Likewise, if you have diarrhea that is persistent, you’re at risk of becoming dehydrated. 

Energy and General Health

If you’re following a restricted or relatively “bland” diet to help cope with a flare of ulcerative colitis symptoms, or you’re on a liquid-only diet as your body heals from surgery, you may be getting fewer calories and nutrition. As a result, you might not have as much energy as you typically do. 

It’s important that you try your best to eat enough each day to meet your body’s nutrition and energy needs. Not only to help manage ulcerative colitis but to maintain your overall health. 

Complications from IBD, such as infections, may be more likely if your body is weakened from malnourishment, vitamin deficiencies, and dehydration. 

Preventing nutritional deficiencies may help prevent flares: In 2017, research from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center indicated that people with ulcerative colitis who are in remission may be more likely to experience a relapse of symptoms if they are deficient in vitamin D.

Dietary Restrictions

There are several situations where your other dietary needs and preferences may influence what you can include in your ulcerative colitis diet. 

For example, if you have celiac disease and need to avoid gluten and wheat, you will need to look for products such as bread, cereals, and pasta that are gluten-free. 

However, it’s important to check the ingredients list of gluten-free products, as some alternatives to wheat are made with beans, legumes, or corn—which may be irritating. 

If you are lactose intolerant, you are likely used to avoiding or limiting dairy products. Most dairy alternatives, such as rice, soy, and almond milk, are tolerated by those following an ulcerative colitis diet. 

For those who adhere to plant-based diets (such as vegetarians and vegans), it may be tricky to find popular foods that comply with the guidelines for your ulcerative colitis diet. For example, staples of a vegetarian diet such as whole grains, beans, nuts, and raw vegetables may not be tolerated if you have ulcerative colitis. 

If you have any other dietary considerations, it’s important to talk to your doctor. When you are restricting your diet in more than one way, such as to manage symptoms of a health condition and to meet your preferences, it may be more difficult for you to stay adequately nourished. Your doctor may want you to take supplements or vitamins to ensure that you don’t become deficient. 

A Word From Verywell

While there isn’t one diet that works for everyone with ulcerative colitis, taking your unique preferences and needs into account as well as some general guidelines can guide you as you create a personalized plan to help manage your symptoms. Your doctor, nutritionist or dietitian, and other health care professionals can work with you to make sure your diet is nutritious, balanced, and works well for helping you manage the condition. From time to time, you may need to make adjustments to your diet. You may also find that adhering to a special diet is challenging at times, as it influences your life at home, work or school, and your social life. Finding an ulcerative colitis diet that works for you involves keeping all these different factors in mind.

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