Occasional diarrhea is a common occurrence. Most people will experience an episode of diarrhea at least once or twice a year that will disappear in a couple of days.
Diarrhea, or having more than three loose or watery stools per day, can happen for a variety of reasons. While it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, diarrhea can usually be managed at home with rest, plenty of fluids, and the easily digested foods that make up the diarrhea diet.
Luckily, there are many foods to eat that may help a person reduce the symptoms of diarrhea. There are also some foods to avoid when dealing with a bout of diarrhea, and some additional home care tips to consider.
Whether your diarrhea is only occasional and caused by allergies or food poisoning, or due to a chronic condition like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease, diet and diarrhea are intricately linked.
Even if you have long-term conditions that affect the digestive system, the diet you eat can greatly affect your digestive system.
When you’re experiencing an episode of diarrhea, there are certain foods that you can eat to help your digestive system get back on track. There are also certain foods that you should avoid.
If you have diarrhea and other symptoms (like nausea, abdominal cramping, and bloating), temporarily following a limited diet of easily digested foods reduces stress on your digestive system and gives your bowels a chance to rest, so you can recover. The diarrhea diet also encourages you to restore your body’s fluid and electrolyte balance.
Simple food choices decrease the amount of waste or residue in your colon, meaning you’ll have fewer and less frequent bowel movements. The slower transit time reduces diarrhea and helps your body stay nourished. (When food is moving through your digestive tract too quickly, it’s harder for your intestines to pull out all the nutrients.)
The diarrhea diet has a lot in common with the well-known BRAT diet, which is used for a variety of gastrointestinal concerns. BRAT is an acronym for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. You’ll find these items along with others on the list of approved diarrhea-diet foods.
Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Diarrhea
Avoid These Foods When You Have Diarrhea
As important as it is to know what to eat when you have diarrhea, you should also know which foods to avoid. Certain foods can travel through your intestines very quickly and aggravate your digestion, or worsen diarrhea in other ways.
Avoid the following for diarrhea relief:
- Fatty foods These include foods that are fried, greasy, or covered in gravy, which can make diarrhea worse.
- Milk, butter, ice cream, and cheese Even if the diarrhea isn’t caused by lactose intolerance — a difficulty processing lactose, a sugar found in dairy products — stay away from these foods when you have diarrhea. You may be temporarily sensitive to dairy products, even if you usually have no problem with them. Probiotic-rich yogurt may be the one exception to this rule, as some studies have shown probiotics help rebalance intestinal flora and could shorten the duration of a bout of diarrhea.
- Alcohol and sodas When you have diarrhea, you want to steer clear of foods and beverages that cause you to lose fluids. Alcohol can act as a diuretic, meaning it’s dehydrating, and should be avoided, Dr. Higgins says. Sodas with high-fructose corn syrup can also pose a problem if you have diarrhea. According to a study published in the June 2017 issue of Healthcare, large quantities of fructose can overwhelm your digestive system and lead to gas, bloating, or diarrhea.
- Sorbitol and other artificial sweeteners Some people find that artificial sweeteners have a laxative effect on their digestive system. If you have diarrhea, it’s best to pass on sugarless candy and gum, diet soft drinks, and sugar substitutes. According to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health newsletter, consuming sugars, including artificial ones, causes your intestines to produce more water and electrolytes, which can then loosen bowel movements and lead to diarrhea.
- Foods that cause excess gas It’s important to eat generous amounts of fruits and vegetables every day. But when diarrhea strikes, you want to avoid choices that are likely to increase intestinal gas, such as cabbage, beans, broccoli, and cauliflower, until you’re feeling better.
- Foods that may be spoiled Stay away from foods that may have been mishandled, including foods that have been out of the refrigerator for too long or improperly stored. Raw meat or fish can be problematic, too. Follow the old maxim, “When in doubt, throw it out,” and you may save yourself some stomach upset.
What to Eat
Fruit: Bananas are bland and easily digested, making them a good choice for settling an upset digestive system. They are also an excellent source of potassium, an important electrolyte that can be lost when you have diarrhea, as well as a rich source of pectin, a soluble fiber.
If you have diarrhea, eating soluble fiber can help absorb liquid in the intestines while preventing constipation. Applesauce is a better choice than an apple, as the fruit’s skin contains insoluble fiber that can put a strain on your digestive system.
Vegetables: Vegetables are nutritional powerhouses but can be hard to digest when eaten raw. Make them into a more diarrhea diet-friendly option by peeling them, removing any seeds, and cooking them thoroughly.
The skin of a baked potato is nutritious, but it may contain more fiber than your system is up for handling. While you’re still having diarrhea, stick to peeled, plain potatoes instead. Avoid broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, peas, green leafy vegetables, and corn, as they tend to cause gas.
Grains: Hot cereals like farina are easy to digest and fortified with nutrition. As you recover, you may want to add oatmeal as well. Oats are another source of soluble fiber. As a bulking agent for stool, it can help reduce diarrhea. If you usually flavor oatmeal with sugar, honey, syrup, or dairy products, you’ll want to avoid these additions if you have diarrhea.
Whole wheat is generally the healthier toast option, but white bread may be better since it’s easier to digest. Saltines and pretzels are often made with white flour rather than wheat. Plus, they also contain salt, which can help restore your body’s sodium balance.
Plain white rice is easily digested and binding, which means it helps firm up loose stools. Cook it plain or with chicken broth. Pasta noodles made from white flour without any sauce or butter are another option.
Dairy: Avoid dairy products until your diarrhea improves. Even if you normally tolerate lactose, it can be more difficult to digest when you have diarrhea.
The one exception is a small serving of low-fat yogurt with live or active bacterial cultures. Choose brands that are low in sugar without any artificial sweeteners, which can worsen gas and loosen stools.
Protein: Steamed white meat chicken is one of the most easily digested sources of animal protein. Lean cuts of turkey, beef, pork, and fish are also acceptable.
Beverages: It’s important that you replace the fluids and electrolytes by drinking plenty of water.1 Coconut water is another hydrating choice. Electrolyte-replacement sports drinks may be an option, though they can be high in added sugar.
Bone broth can help replace fluids and sodium lost from repeated bouts of diarrhea. While it can be used for homemade soups, some consume it on its own as a warm drink.
The BRAT diet
Here’s another bit of good advice from Mom for treating diarrhea – eat the BRAT diet: bananas, rice (white), applesauce and toast.
When your health is good, physicians usually recommend whole-grain, high-fiber foods. But high-fiber foods could spell trouble when you have diarrhea. The BRAT foods are low-fiber and can help to make your stools firmer. Bananas also are high in potassium and help to replace nutrients your body has lost because of diarrhea.
Dr. Kirby says you also can add oatmeal, boiled or baked potatoes (peeled), or baked chicken with the skin removed.
“These are simple foods that people often tolerate very well,” Dr. Kirby says.
Another way to help your gut recover from a diarrheal infection is to consume probiotics — a food or dietary supplement that contains live bacteria, which replaces or adds to the beneficial bacteria usually found in the gastrointestinal tract.
While it’s wise to avoid dairy products when you have diarrhea, Dr. Kirby says, there’s one notable exception — yogurt or kefir, a fermented milk drink, that contain probiotics. These can restore the beneficial bacteria that your body flushes out with diarrhea. Just make sure the yogurt or kefir are low in sugar, as higher levels of sugar can potentially worsen symptoms or diarrheal losses (that’s water and electrolytes) in some patients.
It’s time to call the doctor when diarrhea lasts longer than a few days, Dr. Kirby says. Also see your physician if you experience severe pain or your stool contains significant amounts of blood or pus.
What to Drink
Liquids are also vital to recovery. People with diarrhea must drink plenty of water throughout the day and should drink an additional cup of water after every loose bowel movement.
Drinking plenty of water helps prevent dehydration and flush any toxins out of the body.
However, as well as water, the body also loses minerals and electrolytes through diarrhea. People should try to drink liquids containing minerals and electrolytes to replenish those lost. Sources of electrolytes and minerals include:
- soup broth
- coconut water
- electrolyte water
- sports drinks
Salty and Sweet
The biggest danger with a short bout of diarrhea is dehydration, or the loss of water and nutrients from the body’s tissues. You could become dehydrated if you have diarrhea more than three times a day and aren’t drinking enough fluids. Dehydration can cause serious complications if it isn’t treated.
The best way to guard against dehydration is to consume liquids that contain salt and sugar, says digestive disease specialist Donald Kirby, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. The salt slows down the fluid loss, while the sugar helps your body to absorb the salt.
“We tend not to want people to have salt in general, but when you’re having significant diarrhea, you want to make sure you’re getting salt and enough sugar to keep out of the emergency room,” Dr. Kirby says.
Over-the-counter rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte® will do the job, Dr. Kirby says. Or, follow Mom’s advice and have some chicken soup with saltine crackers or pretzels.