This is a question I get a lot from people who are worried this may be just another fad diet. It is certainly not! The low FODMAP diet was created by researchers at Monash University in Australia to alleviate symptoms in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It is currently considered the best dietary approach for this condition. A large body of research in different countries has shown it is successful in 50-80-% of people with IBS. But is it healthy? Let’s dig in and answer that question.
What Is a Healthy Low FODMAP Diet?
Whether the low FODMAP diet is healthy depends on how it is implemented. Let me digress for a moment to a better-known diet concept, that of a vegan diet. Most people would think that the vegan diet is very healthy. After all, it brings to mind pictures of environmentally friendly, animal-loving people feasting on salads, nuts, and beans.
However, the definition of a vegan diet verges on what it excludes – all animal products – rather than what it includes – plant-based foods. You could eat French fries, bagels, vegan cookies, and drink sodas and you could say you are a vegan.
Although I have exaggerated this example (at least I hope so!), you get the idea. Having a bagel with jam for breakfast, a vegan burger on a white bun with lots of ketchup for lunch, and a big plate of pasta with tomato sauce for dinner may be closer to what uninformed vegans may be eating and hardly be called a nutritious diet.
Inclusion Instead of Exclusion
Going back to whether the low FODMAP diet is healthy or not depends more on what you include than what you exclude. The low FODMAP protocol teaches you to limit high-FODMAP foods during the elimination phase. Then, minimize them according to tolerance once you have figured out your own personalized FODMAP diet.
Unfortunately, many people end up avoiding all high-FODMAP foods long term either because they are afraid of reintroducing them or because they don’t know that the low-FODMAP diet is not a life-long diet. They may get into a routine of eating the same few types of vegetables and fruit or avoiding some foods, like legumes and dairy altogether. In other words, a poorly planned low FODMAP diet can be lacking in important nutrients like calcium and B vitamins, and fiber. Working with a dietitian who is an expert in the low FODMAP diet can help you avoid this common mistake.
How You Can Rate Your Diet
Here are a few questions you may ask yourself to get an idea about how healthy your low FODMAP diet is.
1. Am I eating enough fiber?
You don’t need nutrition software to know whether you are eating enough fiber. Write down what you eat for 3-5 days and look back at your diary. Are you eating vegetables in your main meals and at least one snack? Consider your choice of protein-rich foods: are you occasionally eating some canned lentils or chickpeas? Are you including some nuts and seeds? See my 5 Tips to Eat More Fiber on a Low FODMAP Diet for more ideas.
2. Am I eating enough calcium?
Contrary to common belief, the low FODMAP diet is not a dairy or lactose-free diet. It is a low-lactose diet and can include small portions of hard cheeses, which are naturally low in lactose. Even lactose-intolerant people can tolerate small amounts of lactose. In addition, you can eat lactose-free dairy products freely. If you are avoiding dairy for other reasons – allergy to milk protein or other – there are many alternative calcium sources. Even vegans can eat enough calcium if they plan their diet well!
3. Am I eating the colors of the rainbow?
Is your diet white and red (gluten-free pasta and tomatoes)? Or do you choose vegetables and fruit with all the colors of the rainbow? This is an easy way to ensure you get the bounty of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that vegetables and fruit have to offer. Chard, kale, spinach, carrots, red peppers, eggplant, kabocha, and summer squash are just some of the vegetables that have either negligible or small amounts of FODMAPs and you can eat them freely.
There are many low-FODMAP choices for fruit as well. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and cantaloupe or honeydew in the summer, whereas in the fall/winter, you can find citrus fruits and kiwi just to name a few.
In summary, the low FODMAP diet – just like any other diet – can be healthy or not depending on how you implement it. If you’ve answered “yes” to all these questions – great job! On the other hand, if the answer to at least one of these questions is no, try some of the suggestions above.
Are you having trouble navigating a low FODMAP diet and figuring out what foods may be triggering your IBS symptoms, I can help!