What the f*ck is a FODMAP? …you could rightfully ask! FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates that are fine for many people but are troublesome for others. The low-FODMAP system works by cutting them back to a minimum in our diet.
There’s lots to love about the low-FODMAP diet and it’s gained in popularity in recent years. It’s been proven to ease the horrible symptoms of many common gut ailments and some doctors are prescribing it to their patients with IBS.
However it’s not a magic bullet. Certain foods are permitted on the diet that are known to be bad for our gut and overall health. Also the diet doesn’t offer any solutions for rebuilding our community of friendly bacteria that are so crucial to gut health.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is thought to affect 10 – 15% of us at one time or another. Many people have it all their lives. The symptoms include chronic diarrhea and/or constipation, bloating, heartburn and depression. It can be highly unpleasant and generally make you feel horrible.
The low-FODMAP diet is designed to help people with IBS and other gut conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD – a more serious version of IBS, where the gut lining becomes inflamed).
The diet was created by a research team at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. By their own description it is a short-term strategy for ‘managing symptoms’ of IBS rather than getting to the root cause.
The low-FODMAP diet works by cutting out foods that contain certain carbohydrates (called FODMAPs for short) that are difficult to digest. These offending carbs hang around in our gut where they mess with the fluid balance and become food for bacteria, the theory goes.
The result is that bacteria break down the carbs through fermentation and the by-product is gas, which in turn leads to uncomfortable bloating and irritation of the gut.
You think, ok that makes sense, bacteria feed off this stuff and produce gas which makes us fart and feel bloated etc. Cut back these foods and the bacteria die back. Job done?!
Not so fast! It’s actually perfectly normal and healthy for friendly bacteria to break down food we can’t digest. That’s essentially what fibre is. Have you heard of PREbiotics (as opposed to PRObiotics)? They’re exactly the same thing: food for our friendly microbes. They are known to be a good thing for our gut health.
So…the low-FODMAP diet works by taking out prebiotic foods that nurture and support our friendly bacteria? Wait, what? That doesn’t makes sense!
This lack of clarity over how it works is one reason it’s probably best not to follow the low-FODMAP diet long term but instead to use it as a short-term strategy to help your gut settle down.
Does low-FODMAP Really Work?
Scientific studies have shown the diet to be effective in helping the symptoms of IBS in more than 50% of sufferers. This is great, no question.
The studies have been small but scientists describe the results as ‘promising, but the effects on gastroinstestinal health require further investigation’
Reasons To Love Low-FODMAP
- We know that it works to alleviate people’s gut problems.
- Because of scientific studies showing it works, doctors are more willing to recommend it to their patients. Other diets such as Paleo or GAPS may also be effective or even better but don’t yet have clear results from studies on people with gut problems.
- The positive scientific studies help to demonstrate that diet has a role to play in chronic gut problems. You might think that’s as obvious as the nose on your face but the medical establishment has been sceptical and nutrition is not taught in medical school.
Reasons To Be Careful With Low-FODMAP
The diet’s single-minded focus on reducing FODMAPs means that certain foods are allowed in the diet which are believed to be AWFUL for gut health, such as:
- refined sugar
- processed ‘gluten-free’ flours made of tapioca, corn, rice and potato starches
- processed, packaged foods including sauces and spreads. If you want to get up to speed on the problems with this, check out 7 Huge Reasons To Avoid Processed Food
- soy, which messes with our hormones and is almost always genetically modified
Also foods are excluded that are generally considered to be great for gut health because they support our friendly bacteria and reduce inflammation, such as:
- onions, garlic, asparagus
- full fat yoghurt and cheese: these are excluded from the diet because the creators are coming from the now-discredited perspective that saturated fats are bad for us. Saturated fats are actually good for us!
There’s nothing in the low-FODMAP diet about taking care of our friendly bacteria. No gut-healing diet is complete in my opinion unless it involves eating live cultured food every day, just as our ancestors did.
We now know the friendly bacteria in our microbiome are fundamental not just to our gut health but also to our immune system, our metabolism, our hormones, our brain and our entire body in fact.
Should I try Low-FODMAP?
Consider it if:
- you’ve been diagnosed with IBS or IBD
- you haven’t been diagnosed but do have gut or digestion issues
If you’re already on the FODMAP diet, well done for taking action to deal with your gut health! Now consider taking it to the next level with:
- The Paleo diet
- The GAPS diet
- The Gut Geek Clean Eating System
Key Takeaway Points
I have mixed feelings about the low-FODMAP diet. It’s helped thousands of people who are suffering with chronic gut problems. That’s outstanding and the creators have done a fine thing.
However, it may not be a long term gut solution as its focus is so narrowly on the small group of carbohydrates called FODMAPs. This means that unhealthy foods like refined sugar or processed flours are permitted in the diet. Also nothing is prescribed in the diet for boosting our all-important friendly bacteria.
To take it back to the title of this post, can we really heal our gut with the low-FODMAP diet? Perhaps not, but I welcome it as a valuable option in the gut-fixing toolbox.