Should you be eating a low-FODMAP diet?
Avoiding a group of sugars called FODMAPs can help relieve debilitating gut symptoms, but there are a few things to know before you start.
By the time Vanessa Hutchinson heard the word “FODMAPs”, she’d been living with a sensitive, sore stomach for years.
“It severely impacted my day-to-day life,” she says. “I’d often feel sick for days.”
After tests found Vanessa wasn’t intolerant to gluten or lactose, she was advised to check out Monash University’s FODMAP (an acronym for fermented, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) diet app and something clicked.
After starting a low-FODMAP diet, Vanessa’s symptoms practically disappeared.
So, what exactly are FODMAPs? Why do they cause problems for some people? And what should you do if you suspect you’re one of them?
Here are key things to know about FODMAPs:
What are FODMAPs?
FODMAPs are a collection of short-chain carbohydrates, or sugars, that the gut doesn’t absorb properly.
That’s good news for gut bacteria, which use FODMAPs as a fuel source by fermenting them.
But it’s bad news for people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder that affects as many as one in five Australians.
“In people with IBS, FODMAPs cause gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhoea, abdominal pain, excessive wind and bloating,” says Dakota Rhys-Jones, research dietitian from the Department of Gastroenterology at Monash University, where the term FODMAP was first coined in 2005.
For people with IBS, the way the gas that’s a product of the fermentation process naturally stretches the intestinal wall causes exaggerated sensations of pain and discomfort.
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Which foods contain FODMAPs?
FODMAPs are found in a wide variety of foods.
These include fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals, nuts, legumes and confectionery.
While some are high-FODMAP foods, like yoghurt, apples and cashews, others are low-FODMAP foods, like feta cheese, pineapple and peanuts.
Different foods also contain different groups of FODMAPs.
For example, dairy products contain lactose, while fruit contains fructose.
“When it comes to FODMAPs, we know it’s not a one-size fits all approach,” says Dakota.
“Not only can the degree of symptoms they cause be highly variable, some people might find that only one or two groups of FODMAPs cause them problems, while others might experience symptoms from more than just a few groups.”
FODMAPS and IBS
“We’ve found that approximately 75 per cent of people with IBS will have reduced symptoms when they reduce their FODMAP intake,” says Dakota.
Since other research groups have made similar discoveries, a low-FODMAP diet is now recommended as the go-to treatment for people diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome.
It’s important to get a diagnosis before embarking on a low-FODMAP diet.
“Symptoms of IBS can overlap with other more serious medical conditions and gastrointestinal diseases, including coeliac disease, so it’s important to see your doctor first to rule out any other medical conditions before trying a low-FODMAP diet,” says Dakota.
“Plus, some FODMAPs are also considered prebiotic, meaning they stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
“So, for people without IBS it’s important not to reduce FODMAP intake unnecessarily.”
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A low-FODMAP diet isn’t for life
A low-FODMAP diet not only restricts prebiotic fibres, but it can compromise intake of nutrients like calcium and B-vitamins, too.
“As a result, a strict low-FODMAP diet shouldn’t be followed forever,” says Dakota.
“The diet is a three-step process – low FODMAP, reintroduction and personalisation.
“Some people may also find their tolerances change over time so we encourage people with IBS to continue to rechallenge foods.”
The entire process is best carried out with the help of a FODMAP-trained dietitian.
For Vanessa, finding a way to ease her stomach pain has been life-changing, in more ways than one.
Her health journey inspired her to launch Fodbods, a range of FODMAP-friendly health bars, to help others dealing with similar issues.
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Written by Karen Fittall