A Guide To Eating Out With IBS
Jun 16, 2023
If you experience uncomfortable symptoms of IBS when you eat particular food items or the ingredients that they are sometimes made with, eating out can be quite tricky and sometimes embarrassing.
Here at JUVIA, we are passionate about giving you the freedom you deserve with regard to eating and enjoying the foods you love without the consequences, and today’s post is about managing social meals with a sensitive tummy.
Remember, this is not medical advice. If you have allergies or your body responds with severe symptoms, it is important that you seek professional guidance that is relevant to your specific circumstances. This guide is a general overview of eating out safely.
What is IBS?
IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome. It is characterised by the inability or difficulty to digest certain foods, which produce uncomfortable and sometimes very severe symptomatic responses in individuals suffering from the condition.
The food items that cause the most severe response tend to be those with the highest fermentable carbohydrates and it is the fermentation process that takes place inside your body that typically causes the discomfort.
What are the most common symptoms of IBS?
The symptoms of IBS vary between individuals, both in type and severity. The most common symptoms include:
- Stomach cramping
- Diarrhoea or an urgent need to use the bathroom
- Flatulence that often produces a foul smell
- Social anxiety
What causes IBS?
The cause of IBS is complex, but there are two important factors to consider: what triggers the symptomatic response, and the underlying issue that creates the sensitivity in the first place. The latter is the most important, but it is also the most difficult to determine because it will vary between individuals.
In simple terms, IBS happens when your gut microbiome is out of balance. This means that the unfriendly bacteria in your gut have overpopulated and whenever you eat certain foods it triggers a nasty response in your body.
Eating out without the stress
Eating out can be tricky, but these simple tips help make things a little easier.
- Prepare your gut in advance
- Choose IBS-friendly menus
- Drink lots of water before you eat
- Don’t overindulge
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine
- Choose a venue that takes care of its toilet facilities
- Don’t stay out too late
- Get an early night
Prepare your gut in advance
If you know you are going out and you intend to eat one of your favourite dishes and you know that you are likely to react poorly to it, then perhaps give your gut a break in advance, so you can build up some tolerance.
Gut sensitivity is often the cause of microbiota imbalances, so even a short break can give your gut the headstart it needs to balance things out before its next assault. Longer breaks are generally more effective, but this strategy won’t work for everyone, particularly those who have acute sensitivities or allergies.
Taking a break means cutting out completely all the things your body reacts to, even in subtle ways. We know it’s not fun, but at least it lets you get out every once and a while.
Choose IBS-friendly menus
When considering where to eat, check out the venue’s menu before booking. It is helpful to see whether the dishes they serve contain lots of ingredients that rank highly on the FODMAP scale.
FODMAP ranks ingredients according to the number of fermentable carbohydrates they contain. Ingredients that rank the highest are typically the ones that cause the most concern to people that suffer from IBS.
Typically, you will find that cereals, grains, and beans rank quite highly, whereas vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and even lentils in small quantities are considered safe to eat.
High-protein products like meat, fish and eggs are also safe for most people suffering from IBS, so choose menus with these ingredients.
Drink lots of water before you eat
Water is essential to digestion. It activates and transports enzymes that break down your food. Water is also absorbed into the colon to help transport and excrete your waste (poo).
Having too little water can interfere with your body’s ability to digest foods, especially those that present a problem to you. This is typically true for people that suffer from IBS-C, which causes constipation. Increasing your water intake can lessen the burden on your gut.
For those that suffer from IBS-D, which causes diarrhoea, it is still important to maintain a high water intake because a lot of water is lost during expulsion. It is better to reduce or avoid the foods that cause diarrhoea, especially if you are particularly sensitive or the condition protracts for a long period after eating.
Just as it is crucial to give your gut a break from foods that it finds difficult to digest, it is equally important to manage the extent of its exposure when you treat yourself.
This may mean having one plate instead of two or opting for a smaller portion altogether. It is also helpful to ensure that you only have one or two items maximum, that cause irritation during any one meal. This way, your gut has less work to do, so your symptoms will be less severe, and you will likely recover soon.
In other words, be sensible.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine
You may be tempted to have an alcoholic drink with your meal, or coffee afterwards, but actually, it might be worth skipping those treats.
That’s because alcohol tends to rank highly on the FODMAP list, so contributes to your difficulties with digestion. Your body also prioritises metabolising alcohol1 to get rid of it as soon as possible and it is absorbed through both the large intestine and the small intestine and straight into your bloodstream.
Unfortunately, however, alcohol may damage the organs that it comes into contact with2, including the intestines, and this causes two problems. Firstly, it causes your body to become less effective at digesting your food. Secondly, the damage can cause waste products to permeate into your bloodstream, which causes an inflammatory response. Alcohol may also adversely change the composition of your gut microbiota, which creates or exacerbates an underlying gut health issue. All in all, alcohol is to be kept to a minimum if you want a healthy gut.
Coffee, on the other hand, is a little more complex. Research shows that coffee contains phytochemical compounds that are beneficial to your gut flora, but other research shows that coffee suppresses the growth of your gut microbiota. These apply to both caffeinated and non-caffeinated coffees.
More research is required to establish the long-term benefits or harms caused by coffee, but dose and frequency are likely to be relevant factors. The one thing that scientists are in agreement on is that coffee stimulates intestinal muscles, which prompts drinkers to use the toilet, often quite urgently.
That being the case, you might want to hold back on your evening coffee when eating out with friends and save it for the morning instead.
Choose a venue that takes care of its toilet facilities
No one truly wants to poop in a restaurant, but let’s face it; if you have IBS you must respect the possibility and prepare yourself for the potential endeavour.
Unfortunately, not all restaurants put equal effort into designing or maintaining their lavatory spaces, so if there is a possibility that you might find yourself expelling demons mid-sitting, then it’s important to select a restaurant that adequately caters for this need.
We also recommend sitting closer to the toilet if your need tends to arise quite suddenly. Don’t be embarrassed to ask the waiting staff to seat you accordingly; it’s better than the alternative if things go really wrong.
Don’t stay out too late
The idea here isn’t quite hit and run, but simply not to stay out longer than necessary. It stands to reason that if your IBS drives an urgent need to use the toilet, which isn’t the case for everyone, then the longer you are out, the more likely you are to find yourself in a situation where you will need the bathroom.
Give yourself enough time to enjoy your meal and evening, but aim to leave before your normal bedtime, unless of course, you are celebrating. Otherwise, think Cinderella here.
Get an early night
Sleeping improves your gut health. In addition to leaving early, try to ensure you stick to a consistent sleeping pattern. You will be surprised by how much of a difference a good night’s rest will make to your gut and overall health, even indirectly. A good night’s sleep reduces anxiety, improves emotional regulation, and reduces the likelihood that you will make poor diet choices, which further impacts your gut health.
The concepts presented in this article are notably simple but don’t underestimate the utility that can be found in simplicity. All the tips that we shared today will at the very least reduce your anxiety and increase your confidence when going out for dinner, and that alone can reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms because stress and anxiety are a force unto themselves as far as IBS is concerned.
1Insel. P., et al. (2010). Nutrition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers
2Insel. P., et al. (2010). Nutrition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers