Reviewed by Jacque Parker, RN
Ulcerative colitis is a fairly common gastrointestinal inflammatory disorder that is estimated to affect more 900,000 Americans. Although the condition is so widespread it still remains quite misunderstood, with most people failing to recognize the impact it can have on quality of life. Living with ulcerative colitis is incredibly tough because it's extremely unpredictable - some patients experience frequent flare-ups, while others may have no symptoms for years. It can also feel overwhelming because food restrictions seem to exclude every food group.
So, before you go through this list of foods, keep in mind that not everyone has the same food triggers and not every problem food needs to be eliminated completely. In some cases, you may simply need to modify the way you consume a particular food or you may need to avoid it just when you’re dealing with a flare-up.
1. Red meat
Red meats may get you salivating and they’re rich in nutrients like protein, iron, and zinc, among others. However, digesting red meat isn't easy and it's a rather common problem food for ulcerative colitis. Some experts believe that red meat is problematic because of gases released by bacteria when the meat is broken down in your gut. Red meat also tends to have a higher fat content, which may exacerbate symptoms as it cannot be absorbed efficiently during a flare-up.
2. Dairy Products
Dairy products are an important part of a balanced diet, but many patients who suffer from ulcerative colitis are also lactose intolerant. This is why dairy is a common trigger food, causing ulcerative colitis symptoms like gas, painful tummy cramps, and diarrhea. If you have reason to believe that you might be lactose intolerant it may be wise to avoid all dairy products including milk, cream, yogurt, butter, and cheese for at least a month.
3. Cruciferous Veggies
Cruciferous vegetable like broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower are regarded as some of the healthiest foods that should be included in any diet for balanced nutrition. Unfortunately, they can be problematic for ulcerative colitis because of their sulfur content, which results in increased gas buildup. Research shows that cutting back on your intake of these veggies may lower the risk of a flare-up. Whenever you do consume these foods, just make sure that they are well cooked, as raw vegetables are harder to digest and more likely to exacerbate symptoms.
4. High Fiber Foods
High fiber foods can include fibrous fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, which seems to encompass every healthy food group! This is why an ulcerative colitis diet can seem so overwhelming. However, it should be pointed out that these foods are problematic because high fiber intake can trigger or exacerbate ulcerative colitis symptoms. You can include most vegetables in your diet if they are skinned, peeled, seedless, and cooked until soft or if they are pureed. Similarly, you can consume fruits that are peeled, cooked, and seedless.
5. Junk Foods
Junk foods don't belong on any healthy diet and they certainly shouldn't be part of your diet if you suffer from ulcerative colitis. Junk foods are known to trigger flare-ups because most of them are high in fats, sugar, or artificial sweeteners. Fatty, greasy, and deep fried foods are hard to digest, especially during a flare-up, while studies show that consuming sugar rich foods can also trigger ulcerative colitis symptoms in some patients.
6. Spicy foods
Spicy foods are known to trigger diarrhea in many people, whether the dish is seasoned with spicy sauces or contains peppers. So, it comes as no surprise that consuming such foods can trigger a flare-up or severely aggravate ulcerative colitis symptoms. Spicy foods can act as irritants to the stomach lining, causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
7. Soda and Coffee
Almost all sodas and colas are loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners, which are bad for you. In addition, carbonated drinks like sodas are known to trigger ulcerative colitis symptoms because they increase gas buildup and cause irritation to the digestive tract. Many also contain caffeine, which has a stimulant effect, speeding up bowel and colon transit time, increasing the frequency of bowel movements. A nutritional survey found that 1 in 5 ulcerative colitis patients report a worsening of symptoms with caffeine intake. This means that in addition to avoiding sodas, you also need to cut back on coffee and tea.
Alcohol is a major trigger for ulcerative colitis flare-ups and symptoms for a variety of reasons, but it affects us differently as we all have different tolerance levels for alcohol. Similar to caffeine, alcohol has a stimulant effect, speeding up bowel movements and causing diarrhea. It can also act as an irritant to the digestive tract, worsening your symptoms. Beer and wine are particularly offensive because of their high content of sulfates.
While all of these foods and beverages are associated with increased flare-ups of ulcerative colitis, not every patient has the same triggers. However, these are high risk foods. To identify and avoid foods that are particularly bad for you, it would be best to try an elimination diet under the guidance of your health care provider.
Shaun DMello is a prolific writer who has worked with a wide range of health and wellness brands for over a decade. His main areas of expertise are nutrition, fitness, natural medicine, public health, and health care technology. When he's not writing, you can find him reading a good book, curled up on a recliner, jostling for space with his four cats.