Nutrition is a big part of having an IBD, whether you have trigger foods or are
struggling with malnourishment, it’s all important to learn what we can do for our bodies. Seeing a dietician/nutritionist through the NHS can be really hard, and seeing one privately costs money and you’re not always going to find someone who specialises in IBD. I’ve spoken with my friend Ash (from This Dreams Alive and Prickly Pineapples) who is a qualified nutritionist with a focus on plant based conclusions. I am personally a vegetarian and have a lactose intolerance, so these are things I wanted to know for myself because I find a lot of professionals are not equipped to work with me on this due to my restrictions. This post is helpful for everyone, even if you are a meat eater.
I asked what we can eat to help combat certain typical symptoms of an IBD, and this is what she came back with:
Fatigue: fatigue is often caused by low-iron so I’d recommend getting a blood test to make sure your iron levels are good before doing anything. Plant-based sources of iron are leafy greens like spinach and kale, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, seeds like chia seeds, flax seeds, and pumpkin seeds etc. Tomatoes themselves don’t have much iron but it adds up well when they’re concentrated in forms like tomato paste if you want to make pasta, pizza, or soup. The vitamin C content is also helpful for absorbing iron. Drinking tea and coffee with meals is a bad idea if you’re vegan or prone to anemia because the tannins inhibit the iron absorption so have them at least half an hour before or after eating an iron-rich meal. It can be harder to absorb plant-based sources of iron than animal-based sources, and you need to eat a lot to hit the RDA (and who is actually going to eat a whole bag of spinach) so you might have to consider a supplement. Foods with B-vitamins are good too because the B-vitamins help the body convert food into energy. It’s why bread is often fortified with B12! B’s are in hibiscus tea, watermelon, soy, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, spirulina, tahini, mushrooms, rice bran, peanuts/peanut butter, and nutritional yeast. You can also try have more low GI foods that have a slower stable release of energy so you don’t crash, so brown starchy carbs like rice, pasta, and bread, oats, sweet potato etc.
Diarrhea & Constipation: people call the diet that helps with diarrhea the “BRAT” diet which stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. It basically just entails bland foods that are low in fiber. You don’t need to cut out all fiber if you have diarrhea because there’s actually two types of fiber; soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber can’t be digested but it attracts water which can basically add bulk to stools, it also slows down digestion. It dissolves in the water in our bodies into a gel which basically lubricates your intestines. Soluble fiber is in flaxseeds, apples, carrots, sunflower seeds, oats, barley, hazelnuts. Insoluble fiber makes stools pass more quickly by speeding up digestion so it will help for constipation but not with diarrhea, so you might want to stay away from nuts and seeds, root vegetables like carrots and potatoes, celery, and whole grains.
Body pains: cherries are good for muscle pain, which is why concentrated cherry juice is kinda popular in fitness communities. When joint pain is caused by inflammation you can try ease with anti-inflammatory foods like most fruit such as blueberries, oranges, apples, tomatoes, and omega 3s like salmon, tuna, mackerel, cod liver oil, and algal or flaxseed oil for vegans. Algal oil is basically made from the algae fish eat which is where they get their omega 3. Stay away from processed foods and alcohol as they can trigger inflammation.
Sleep: CBD oil and teas can be good for sleep (and inflammation & pain) but they can be expensive so a cheaper way is to drink relaxing teas like chamomile and peppermint before bed (and not black or green tea because they have caffeine). Carbs can also help you sleep because they help boost serotonin and tryptophan, but it’s best to have it with protein. Although it sounds contradictory it’s actually high GI carbs that help you sleep. You could have whole-grain crackers and a handful of nuts or a sugar-free cereal.
Hair-loss: biotin is popular in hair, skin, and nail supplements because it helps with keratin production which is what our hair is. If you don’t want supplements, almonds, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach, sweet potatoes, avocado, bananas, and oats have it too. Biotin is a B vitamin so eating these might also help with fatigue. Omega 3s will help your hair look shinier and stronger too.
I then asked her what she would recommend for the typical vitamins a lots of us can become deficient in. It’s known to be best to get the vitamins and minerals from a food source rather than a tablet, so it’s always best to do this if you can but for more serious cases you should be consulting a doctor as I know we can get iron tablets and infusions as well as B injections.
Potassium: potassium is actually really common to be deficient in! It’s in bananas, coconut water, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms, peas, and sweet potatoes. Licorice can actually affect potassium so if you drink licorice tea, but have low potassium, then you might want to drink another, like peppermint.
B12 is the one vegans get a lot of shit over, it’s in nutritional yeast, and most bread and dairy alternatives are fortified with it, apparently, scientists also found it in water lentils which is exciting and means it’s technically no longer only naturally available in animal products. The reason it’s only in animal products is because cows eat grass, and the soil with it, but we wash vegetables so thoroughly (and should because germs) that there’s nothing left, so getting it from animal products is getting secondhand b12.
B6 is also often in nutritional yeast and fortified bread and milk, but it’s also in corn, avocado, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, tahini, oranges, and quinoa. Quinoa [and soy] are the only non-animal-based protein with all the essential amino acids, so if you feel weak it could be because you’re not getting all your amino acids on a plant-based diet. A lot of vegans don’t have quinoa and soy, so you need to mix protein sources like pairing hummus on pitta bread and beans on toast.
C Vitamins: sources of vitamin C are broccoli, pineapples, brussel sprouts, kiwi, peppers, oranges, spinach, strawberries, kale, mint, lemon, and tomatoes. If you’re gonna hop on the lemon water trend, you need a whole lemon to get around a half of the RDA of vitamin C, lemon water is a little help but not a huge one if you only put in a few drops.
D Vitamins: D vitamins are hard to naturally get on a vegan diet, so they’re mostly in fortified foods like milks, cereals, and bread but it’s also in mushrooms, and orange juice is often fortified with it too. If you can’t get it from sunshine or food then you might be able to look into light therapy that people with SAD use.
What’s important to remember is that plant-based sources of these foods are often lower than animal sources and can be tricker to absorb. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be healthy on a vegan diet, you just need to eat a lot more of these kinds of foods to make sure you’re getting enough. If you’re gonna take supplements, speak to your GP or a dietitian first rather than guessing because you can make yourself sick if you take a supplement you don’t actually need and basically OD on vitamins.
I found Ash’s answers really helpful in starting to understand what vitamins do and where we can get them from. I hope this is helpful for others in a similar predicament but also people generally interested in bettering their nutrition through plant based options. I’d love to hear what you think and if you learned anything new, leave a comment and I’m sure both myself and Ash will be really excited to read!
UPDATE: Since collaborating on this post together, Ash has written a post on Nightshade vegetables and inflammatory responses do to me asking some questions on the topic. I see a lot of sensationalised ‘information’ about food that I find hard to believe (because there is no science behind it 90% of the time) and Ash put some effort in to researching and putting the infor all in one place on this topic and where these rumours start from.
I have a YouTube video on some tips for people newly diagnosed with IBDs (Crohn’s and Colitis) and things to test and try to find something that works for you. No one thing will work for everyone. I’ve also talked about my trip to A&E with Erythema Nodosum caused by a Crohn’s flare on both the blog and my channel. I have also done a selection of videos discussing my diet and showing you what I eat in a day etc. I recommend checking out my channel for a lot more of my Chronic Illness content.
Also I recommend this post for anyone struggling to talk about their IBD and come to terms with it, by Zipporah Arielle for Human Parts.
‘Reforming my relationship with food and exercise’ by Serronda J. Brown
A useful checklist of health maintenance when you have Crohn’s or Colitis from the Crohn’s and Colitis foundation.
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