Picture this. You go out with friends for dinner, eat a fabulous meal and spend a great evening together. But a few hours later you start feeling bloated, with abdominal pain, or have to rush to the loo with a bout of diarrhoea.
If this story rings a bell, you are not alone. Irritable bowel syndrome affects as many as one in five Australians at some point in their lifetime, and is twice as common in women as it is in men.
To learn a bit more about what causes IBS symptoms, gut health, the gut-brain connection and FODMAPs, we talked to Accredited Practicing Dietitian and IBS specialist Chloe McLeod. As someone who loves her food, Chloe shares some great tips healthy eating and keeping friends with your food.
Dietitian does not equal strict diets
Health-a-Porter: Why did you want to become a dietitian?
Chloe McLeod: Since I was a kid a had a number of different food intolerances and in a way always had to be aware of what I was eating, and that made me become interested in food from an early age. I really like talking to people and helping people choose foods that are good for them, so becoming a dietitian was pretty much a no-brainer!
Health-a-Porter: Do you believe in strict diets? Are they actually good for you?
Chloe McLeod: The way I like to practice diet 'rules' for day to day life is keeping it a bit more relaxed and more intuitive and listening to your body. Including whole foods, especially plenty of plants is essential for good health. Unless you have food intolerances, or very specific nutrient requirements - for example, a professional athlete preparing for a competition - there is no need to be super strict with your diet.
What triggers IBS?
Health-a-Porter: What are common concerns that clients bring to your clinic?
Chloe McLeod: I work with a lot of people of gut problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and intolerance to certain foods. My work focuses on determining what is causing symptoms and how we can best manage them.
Gut conditions are triggered by more than just what we eat; how well we sleep, our stress levels and overall mental health can be closely related with gut symptoms.
Health-a-Porter: Talking about gut issues and IBS. It seems to be a growing complaint and certainly something our readers often talk about. Can IBS be reverted? Or at least managed successfully in the long run?
Chloe McLeod: It can be challenging to pinpoint what causes IBS. Your family history, specific events like catching a bug or going through a period of high stress or anxiety can all be associated with triggering the condition but, at the same time, some people who develop IBS had none of these triggers.
There is nothing worse than being so bloated that you look pregnant, or sitting in a meeting feeling like you need to rush to the toilet because of IBS. My main goal is to get patients to have a better quality of life long term and enjoy life a lot better.
Low FODMAP diet for IBS
Health-a-Porter: Let's talk about FODMAP. What is it and how can it help?
Chloe McLeod: Research shows the main causes or triggers of IBS come from a group of foods called FODMAPs, an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. Basically these are carbohydrates that can be poorly absorbed by some people, resulting in a range of symptoms like abdominal bloating, diarrhoea, cramping and nausea.
The way I like to work with my clients is to eliminate these FODMAP foods from their diet and them reintroduce them one by one to understand what are the triggers and what foods can be safely re-introduced.
Managing IBS symptoms is about finding a balance and determining what is right for the individual. It is not recommend to completely exclude FODMAP foods from your diet in long term.
Health-a-Porter: How long are people generally on the FODMAP diet for?
Chloe McLeod: The elimination stage lasts between 2 to 4 weeks, and we generally start seeing an improvement of symptoms within the first 2 weeks. There are 8 different food challenges I go through with clients to work out what food groups are causing issues.
The gut-mind connection
Chloe McLeod: Stress management is very important to reduce gut symptoms. Practising mindfulness, meditation and yoga, or even just taking some time off to go for a walk around the block and concentrate on their breathing - basically anything that can help managing stress is useful.
Again, there is no one size fits all for stress management techniques. There is a lot of talk about meditation and mindfulness at the moment, but that doesn't mean it suits everyone's lifestyle or will work for everyone. Stress management is about finding out what works for you.
I'll refer clients to see a psychologist if that's required, as it can also be very helpful in some cases.
Healthy eating tips
1. Plan ahead. Being organised with your grocery shopping and food prep and cook on weekends if you know you won't have time during the week. I tell this one to all my clients and it's amazing how much difference this one tip can make.
2. Fill half of your plate with vegetables and try to add lots of colours. Put vegetables on your plate first to make sure pasta or other carbohydrates are not taking most of the space.
3. Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is one of the best tips to control the appetite, as it can help reduce the risk of over eating. And water also helps making your skin look healthy!
4. Eat slowly. Really take the time to eat your food. Just like at a wine tasting, take the time to smell and see the food before your eat, and think about the different flavours and the textures. Disconnecting from devices and eating more mindfully will help you feel more satisfied and you will enjoy the food more too!
5. Get plenty of sleep. Not getting enough sleep will actually stimulate the production of hormones that will make you feel hungry, even if you don't actually need more food.
6. Allow yourself treats. Food is for joy, not just for nourishment. There is nothing wrong with allowing the little extra treats occasionally; that's is part of a healthy relationship with food.
7. You are human. When it comes to nutrition, it's really about being kind to yourself and making the best choices that you can, as often as you can. And if sometimes you go off-track, that's ok. It's just about getting on track again and working towards achieving a health goal.