How to Eat When You Have Ulcerative Colitis

Health Professional

If you’ve been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, the good news is that you aren’t necessarily condemned to a life of pain. Symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and possible intestinal bleeding — all of which are hard to stomach — can indeed be controlled simply by paying close attention to your eating habits.

But first, a primer. Ulcerative colitis is characterized by chronic inflammation of the colon. Though it’s limited to the inner most lining of the colon wall, inflammation can affect different parts of the colon, which impacts the kind of symptoms you may experience. There are even different terms used to distinguish between various types of ulcerative colitis, based on the extent in which the colon is involved.

The good news is that, unlike Crohn’s disease, patients with ulcerative colitis should not have trouble absorbing nutrients as only the large intestine is affected, so dietary restrictions are only recommended during times of UC exacerbation. And while some foods may worsen symptoms of ulcerative colitis, there are no foods that worsen the inflammation of the colon lining. Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific diet that is recommended for those with ulcerative colitis, though it’s been shown that certain dietary practices and lifestyle changes can help control symptoms, or increase time between flare-ups. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that what works best varies depending on the patient, and that any treatment plan should be guided by a gastroenterologist and registered dietitian.

Cutting vegetables

Here are some tips for managing ulcerative colitis with food:

Avoid dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter

People with ulcerative colitis often have food intolerances rather than actual food allergies. Dairy foods appear to trigger significant abdominal bloating, pain, and diarrhea in those with the condition. It’s sometimes due to an inability to properly digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. In any case, staying away from dairy may help alleviate or prevent symptoms from occurring.

Watch your fruits and veggies

High fiber or high residue foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may also worsen the symptoms in ulcerative colitis. One way to prevent this and still get the benefits of a healthy diet is to steam or cook fruits and vegetables.

Keep track of what you eat

Because different types of food can also trigger symptoms or cause a flare up, it is important to keep note of which foods are not well-tolerated, and write it down in a food journal. Common foods that can make symptoms worse include spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine.

Drink plenty of fluids

With diarrhea-related ulcerative colitis, you could become dehydrated, which may adversely affect kidney function. So it’s essential to stay adequately hydrated by drinking fluids throughout the day.

Divide up food intake throughout the day

Eating more frequent, smaller meals may be easier to stomach during flare ups. Once the disease is under control, this approach may help prevent the onset of symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating.

Shore up nutrient deficiencies if necessary

Again, because only the colon is affected with ulcerative colitis and not the small intestines, the risk of being deficient is extremely low, if at all. However, patients with severe or uncontrolled ulcerative colitis may develop iron deficiency anemia and may need iron supplements to restore iron in the body. Discuss dietary supplementation with your gastroenterologist before doing so on your own.