Millions of Americans suffer from diverticulitis and most are searching for a healthy diverticulitis diet. Diverticula are small pouches that form on the lining of the digestive system, most commonly in the large intestine. The presence of diverticula is a condition called diverticulosis, which is not uncommon and often presents no symptoms or problems.
Diverticula that become inflamed or infected cause discomfort—from bloating to severe abdominal pain—and that condition is diverticulitis.
Since diverticulitis is a digestive condition, it makes sense that diet and food play an important role.
What is a diverticulitis diet?
A diverticulitis diet is a diet plan that many doctors recommend to help relieve the discomfort of diverticulitis and ease the body back to a normal diet.
But there are also some general diet practices that people with diverticulosis can follow to help prevent or lessen attacks of diverticulitis.
The diverticulitis recovery diet
During an attack of diverticulitis, doctors will recommend pulling back to only clear liquids, and then slowly adding certain foods as you are able. The Mayo Clinic explains,
Nutrition therapy for diverticulitis is a temporary measure to give your digestive system a chance to rest. Eat small amounts until bleeding and diarrhea subside.
A clear liquid diet generally includes:
- Clear juices, like apple juice, with no pulp
- Clear broths
- Plain popsicles, with no fruit or candy pieces
- Plain tea, without cream or milk
As you start to recover, slowly begin adding foods that are low in fiber:
- White bread
- White rice
- Pasta and noodles
- Fruit or vegetable juice with no pulp
- Canned fruit without skin or seeds
- Canned or cooked green beans or carrots without skin
Clear liquids provide almost no nutritional value, so try to add more foods as soon as you feel up to it. If you can’t eat anything after two days, it’s time to call your doctor.
The general diverticulitis diet
Unlike the recovery diet, there is not a universally recognized, one-size-fits-all diet plan to prevent attacks of diverticulitis. Several studies, however, have proven that certain dietary changes can be helpful.
1. Fiber-rich foods
It seems counter-intuitive, since doctors recommend avoiding high-fiber foods during a diverticulitis attack, but people with diverticulosis are generally encouraged to make sure they’re getting enough fiber.
That’s because fiber is a crucial ingredient to overall gut health. Fiber encourages normal, regular bowel movements, which is important for keeping the digestive system clear and healthy.
People who don’t get enough fiber (most Westerners), are more likely to suffer diverticulitis than people who do. Other studies have shown that regular bowel movements may prevent diverticulitis and can help the digestive system heal after an attack.
Fiber-rich foods include:
- Vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussel’s sprouts
- Beans and legumes
- Fruits (with the skin, where applicable), like pears, apples, bananas, and avocados
- Grains, like bran and barley
You can also increase fiber intake through a simple supplement.
It’s important to note that if you are not currently getting much fiber, you need to increase your intake slowly. A sudden, dramatic increase in the amount of fiber you’re eating can lead to bloating and constipation.
Probiotics are live microorganisms—beneficial bacteria and yeasts—that improve and support overall gut health.
Probiotics can be found in natural yogurt and fermented foods such as:
Supplements are also a good option if you need to add probiotics, but aren’t a fan of fermented foods.
3. Anti-inflammatory foods
Since diverticulitis is the inflammation of diverticula, it may be helpful to make sure that anti-inflammatory foods are also a regular part of your diet. Some foods that naturally help to fight inflammation include:
- Berries, such as blueberries and strawberries
- Whole grains
Anti-inflammatory supplements are also available, but be careful: Many of the best ones rely heavily on turmeric and ginger.
Turmeric and ginger are both wonderful anti-inflammatories, but spices can also irritate the intestinal lining. If you know that you frequently have digestive discomfort after eating these spices, try a fruit-based anti-inflammatory supplement instead.
In addition to improving your diet, you may be able to better manage diverticulitis by changing a couple of habits.
1. Get some sun.
More than one study has associated low levels of vitamin D with an increased risk of diverticulitis. Experts believe this is because vitamin D helps to regulate inflammation, as well as maintain colon health.
The best way to get vitamin D is to spend some time in the sunshine. Certain cholesterols in the skin become vitamin D when exposed to UV-B light from the sun. Vitamin D created in your skin may even stay in your system for twice as long as vitamin D from supplements or food sources.
There are other risks with exposure to UV-B light, of course, and it’s not as plentiful during the winter months. In those cases, a good vitamin B supplement can help. You can also get vitamin B from:
- Fatty fish (tuna, salmon)
- Egg yolks
- Foods fortified with vitamin D, such as orange juice or soy milk
2. Try smaller, more frequent meals.
Doctors and nutritionists recommend a pattern of frequent, small meals (rather than two or three large meals) throughout the day for a variety of reasons. Eating small, frequent meals can help control appetite, maintain a more efficient metabolism, and help stabilize blood sugar levels.
The practice of eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day has also been proven to help manage a variety of gastrointestinal conditions.
The key to switching a dietary pattern is consistency and the careful maintenance of nutrients. It’s easy to eat small “snacks” throughout the day and end up losing important vitamins and minerals. If you decide to try smaller, frequent meals, make a plan first for when, and what, you will eat. And be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Foods to avoid with diverticulitis
There are no strict regulations about foods that need to be completely avoided to prevent diverticulitis.
Health professionals used to discourage people with diverticulosis from eating nuts and seeds. It was thought they could become lodged in the diverticula and cause infection, but more recent research has failed to prove this theory. Most doctors have moved away from this advice.
There is, however, a growing collection of studies that suggest diverticulitis can be controlled and at least somewhat prevented by avoiding certain foods. See our previous article on “Foods to Avoid with Diverticulitis” for details. →
How to start a diverticulitis diet
If you’ve been diagnosed with diverticulosis, have experienced diverticulitis in the past, or are at a higher risk for diverticulitis because of family medical history, it’s never too soon to start making gradual improvements to your diet.
1. Talk to your doctor.
Talk to your doctor or nutritionists about your plans, especially if you have other conditions or dietary needs. If you know that you need to increase your fiber intake, for example, let your doctor know, talk about what to expect, and ask if he or she has specific recommendations on how to gradually increase your fiber.
2. Evaluate your current diet.
We don’t always plan our meals as carefully as we should—especially if you’re busy with work or children all day.
It might be helpful to start a food journal, in order to pinpoint the best place to start improving your diet. Don’t make any changes for a week or two, just make notes about what you eat and when.
Then, review your diet against the recommendations above and on our list of foods to avoid. How much fiber are you really getting? Would a probiotic supplement help? Do you tend to eat only two large meals each day? You may find an obvious first few steps.
3. Make small changes.
Don’t go overboard and start adding fiber and supplements all at the same time. If something disagrees with your system, you’ll never know which new food or practice it was.
Identify one change you can make, start small, and keep taking quick notes in your food journal.
Maybe you start by adding fruit to your lunch and a fiber-rich veggie to dinner most days. Note what specific food you’re adding and how you feel up to an hour after eating. Stick with that for a week. If you feel good, make another small change.
4. Drink lots of water.
Staying hydrated is just important anyway, but especially as you’re making deliberate changes to your diet to improve digestion. Adequate hydration keeps stools soft and easier to pass.
Hydration is especially important if you’re increasing fiber. Remember, too much fiber—or a sudden increase—can sometimes cause constipation. Drinking enough water can combat the hardening of stools while your body adjusts to good fiber intake.
5. Call your doctor if you’re worried.
If you have adverse reactions or a noticeable change in bowel movements, that does not correct by eliminating the new food, call your doctor.
If you are working through a recovery diet, you should be able to start adding low-fiber foods by day two. If you still can’t keep food down after the second day, or if you can’t keep clear fluids down, call a doctor immediately.
Diverticulitis diet vs. other digestive diets
If you or a loved one have been managing any kind of digestive issue, you may be familiar with other common “diets.” So how does a diverticulitis diet compare?
Vs. a low-FODMAP diet
“FODMAP” stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols.” These are essentially sugars—short-chain carbs—that are hard to digest. A low-FODMAP diet limits these types of foods.
Low-FODMAP diets have been proven to prevent and ease diverticulitis, but since this diet is about limiting certain foods (some of which have other health benefits to consider) it should be paired with a diet that adds good, preventative dietary considerations as well.
Vs. a BRAT diet
If you’ve ever nursed a child with an upset stomach, you’ve probably heard of the BRAT diet. “BRAT” stands for “bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast”—all gentle, easily digestible foods that are good for an upset stomach.
It’s important to note, though, that the BRAT diet isn’t really a diet. It’s a short-term list of foods to eat on the road to recovery, and doctors recommend adding normal, nutritional foods as soon as possible. The BRAT diet offers very little nutritional value, so it is not a long-term solution for any kind of condition or disorder.
Managing diverticulitis with diet
When most people reference the diverticulitis diet, they’re referring to a recovery diet of clear liquids followed, as soon as possible, by low-fiber foods, and then a normal diet.
It is also possible, however, to mitigate the instances of diverticulitis by improving diet, eating habits, and vitamin D levels.
As always, talk to your doctor before making any drastic changes, especially if you have other needs or conditions that require dietary considerations. If you get sick or become pregnant, be aware that dietary needs may also change for a time, and that’s okay.
When you’re ready to take control of your diverticulitis, get a small notebook you can use as a food journal and start evaluating your diet. Small, gradual changes take time, so the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll feel better.
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