Have you ever heard of FODMAPs? No, it’s not some strange military maneuver or a new food map (ha); it’s the latest, cutting-edge treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Basically, the FODMAPs approach is a diet, a way of eating. Eating a low FODMAP diet means avoiding certain foods that can cause gas, bloating, constipation and all of the other lovely symptoms those of us with IBS know so well. But what’s with the weird name?
FODMAPs stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides, and Polyols. The name was created by Australian researchers who realized that a low FODMAP diet helped up to 75% of their patients, says Patsy Catsos, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with a private practice focused on gastrointestinal health. She is the author of IBS–Free at Last! Second Edition (2012) and the editor of www.ibsfree.net.
Patsy explains that examples of FODMAPS include:
- Lactose (also known as milk sugar, found in milk, yogurt and ice cream)
- Fructose (also known as fruit sugar, found in fruit, high-fructose corn syrup, honey and agave syrup)
- Sorbitol, mannitol, and other “-ol” sweeteners (found in certain fruits and vegetables as well as some types of sugar-free gums and candies)
- Fructans (a type of fiber found in wheat, onions, garlic and chicory root)
- GOS (a type of fiber found in beans, hummus and soy milk)
Catsos adds that the “novelty of the FODMAP approach is recognizing how the big picture [of overall diet] can be used to create a strategy for managing IBS symptoms.” I struggle with IBS myself, and I first became aware of the diet by reading the healthy living blog Hungry Hungry Hippie. Its author (and fellow IBS sufferer and nurse), Elise Dieden, says she was hesitant to treat her IBS with medication:
After a few months of looking into FODMAPs, I decided to give it a shot. The symptoms certainly matched mine and everything I read felt like it was personally directed at me.
I did a two week elimination phase (no FODMAPs) in September 2011 and since then I’ve been maintaining (with a low FODMAPs plan). I have bad days where I slip up, but it’s much easier now that I know why I’m having GI problems and how to fix it. Having the knowledge to correct the issue and feel better is so empowering. I no longer get frustrated with my body because the painful symptoms aren’t random. I definitely feel like discovering FODMAPs has made the biggest difference in improving my GI health.
Sounds great, right? So why aren’t more people trying a low FODMAPs diet to treat their IBS? Well, mainly because it’s largely unknown here in the United States. Patsy Catsos herself first became aware of the diet five years ago, in 2007:
I developed my own materials based on what I could glean from the medical literature trickling out of Australia, and they were an immediate success in my practice. Some patients were ecstatic with the way they felt after just a few days on the diet, and I got better at identifying good candidates. Some patients described the difference as “amazing,” like “night and day” or said they finally knew what it was like to feel normal.
Diets low in lactose and fructans (hello, gluten-free craze!) are pretty well-known and popular here. Patsy says that if you’re already eating a lactose-free or gluten-free diet and you continue to have uncomfortable GI symptoms, you may be a good candidate for a low-FODMAP trial: “If you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity and are still experiencing bouts of GI symptoms, even when you are eating a gluten-free diet, FODMAPs might be responsible.” Wow, who knew?
A low-FODMAP diet, while it might be the magic cure you’ve been looking for to help manage your IBS, isn’t easy to do, at least not at first. Lots of people feel intimidated, especially when eating at restaurants or trying to puzzle out the confusing labels on packaged foods—not to mention explaining to friends and family why you can’t eat something as basic as an apple or some beans. Plus, lots of foods that are high in FODMAPS, like Greek yogurt or even broccoli, are actually very nutritious, so you may feel like your eating habits are suffering.