Crohn’s Disease Diet: Foods To Eat And Avoid

Digestive disorders stemming from inflammation impact millions of people annually and can negatively impact your quality of life and physical health.

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the main types of inflammatory bowel diseases. 

If you have one of these conditions, your diet will play a large role in managing your symptoms and promoting your quality of life.

Keep reading to learn about foods to eat and avoid with a Crohn’s disease diet plan.

What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes chronic swelling and inflammation of parts of your digestive tract. 

Unlike more common bowel disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease is considered rare and is estimated to impact fewer than 200,000 people in the United States per year. 

The area of the digestive system most commonly impacted by Crohn’s is the last part of the small intestine called the ileum, as well as parts of the colon (large intestine).

The cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown, but some health professionals believe that diet and stress play an important role in the development of Crohn’s. 

Some of the potential risk factors for developing Crohn’s include:

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease can vary among people, and they can vary in intensity. When you’re not having many symptoms from Crohn’s, it’s said to be in remission, but it can come back.

When Crohn’s disease is active (causing symptoms), the most common symptoms can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Bloody stools
  • Mouth sores
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Pain or drainage near or around the anus due to a fistula

You might develop symptoms that impact other aspects of your health, not just your digestive tract. 

You might experience:

  • Inflammation of your skin, eyes, and joints
  • Inflammation of your liver or bile ducts
  • Kidney stones
  • Iron deficiency (anemia)

Crohn’s disease might also result in complications such as bowel obstruction (blockages), fistulas, anal fissures (tears in your anus), and malnutrition due to reduced food intake and/or reduced nutrient absorption in your intestines.

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What is a Crohn’s disease diet plan?

If you have Crohn’s disease, the foods that make your symptoms worse will likely vary from other people with Crohn’s. 

Some foods can worsen symptoms in most people with Crohn’s, which you should generally avoid, especially if they worsen your symptoms or cause further intestinal damage.

There isn’t a specific diet for Crohn’s since everyone is different and symptoms can vary. 

A Crohn’s disease diet plan is a way of eating that helps reduce inflammation and irritation of your digestive tract and promotes healing and overall good health. 

A diet for Crohn’s disease should provide enough calories and nutrients to support your weight since malnutrition can occur if you’re not eating enough nutrients. Protein is especially important to promote the healing of damaged intestinal tissue.

Your Crohn’s diet might also differ when you’re experiencing a flare-up, which is when your symptoms are more intense and consistent than they might be at other times. 

If you’ve also experienced a stricture (narrowing of intestinal opening) from Crohn’s, you may need to make further adjustments to your Crohn’s disease diet.

Foods to eat with Crohn’s

Lean protein

Protein is important for promoting the healing of damaged intestinal tissue. Eating adequate amounts of protein can also prevent muscle loss if you’re struggling with keeping your weight up.

Some sources of lean protein to include in your Crohn’s disease diet include:

  • Fish
  • Lean cuts of pork or red meat
  • White meat poultry
  • Soy (including tofu)
  • Eggs

Soft vegetables

Vegetables are incredibly nutritious, but they might worsen Crohn’s symptoms, especially in a flare-up. 

In order to prevent the worsening of active Crohn’s symptoms, choose fully cooked, seedless, skinless, non-cruciferous (flowering, like broccoli and cauliflower, which can cause gas) vegetables like:

  • Asparagus tips
  • Potatoes without the skin
  • Well-cooked carrots
  • Squash (pumpkin, butternut squash, etc.)
  • Bell peppers

Soft, low-fiber fruits

Like vegetables, fruit is very nutritious, but it can be problematic for some people with Crohn’s. During a flare-up, try to choose soft, lower-fiber fruits such as:

  • Applesauce
  • Bananas
  • Melon
  • Any cooked/soft fruit (e.g., canned fruit)

Refined grains

Fiber can be problematic for Crohn’s because it takes more work for your intestines to digest. 

In addition, rough high-fiber foods high in insoluble fiber can irritate damaged intestinal tissue and might cause intestinal bleeding.

Lower-fiber grains are recommended if you’re experiencing worsening symptoms when eating whole grains. 

Some soft, low-fiber grains for your Crohn’s diet can include:

  • White bread, muffins, etc. (or try sourdough or potato flour-based grains)
  • White pasta
  • Oatmeal (while oatmeal is a whole grain, it’s not high in insoluble fiber, the kind that can irritate inflamed intestines)
  • White rice

Nutrition/protein drinks

If you’re unable to tolerate much solid food during a Crohn’s flare, your healthcare provider or dietitian might recommend nutrition shakes to help provide calories, protein, and other nutrients. 

You can also make your own homemade protein shakes with whey protein powder, which is generally well-absorbed and digested, even if you have lactose intolerance.

Iron-rich foods

Crohn’s disease might cause anemia if you’re experiencing blood loss, such as from ruptured blood vessels with ulcers, fissures, or bloody stools

If you need to undergo bowel surgery for Crohn’s, you’ll be especially at risk of developing anemia and will need to eat enough iron-rich foods to help your body rebuild new red blood cells.

Iron is a mineral that builds a protein called hemoglobin, which helps transport oxygen-rich blood to your body. 

Without enough iron, you can experience fatigue, weakness, and dizziness, among other symptoms.

Food sources of iron to help prevent anemia from blood loss include:

  • Red meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Organ meats
  • Beans and lentils
  • Cereals and grains with iron added
  • Dried fruit

Probiotics

Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s can negatively impact the beneficial bacteria in your digestive system, especially if you need to take antibiotics for any intestinal infections. 

Probiotic foods can help replenish beneficial bacteria in your gut that can aid in healthy digestion. Studies also show that probiotics may even help reduce inflammation. 

Fermented foods are among the best sources of probiotics and include foods and drinks like:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have impressive anti-inflammatory properties, which may help ease the inflammation in your digestive system that causes Crohn’s. 

Among omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) seem to offer the most benefit.

Krill oil, fish oil, and other marine sources are among the best sources of EPA and DHA. 

Some foods to eat to get more EPA and DHA in your diet to help heal colon inflammation include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
  • Cod liver oil and other fish oil
  • Algae oil

Plant-based omega-3 fatty acids are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These sources can be higher in fiber/roughage, so if you don’t tolerate fiber, you should stick with the sources mentioned above since they are generally soft or in oil form. 

Alternatively, you can choose the oil forms of these sources, such as flaxseed oil.

Some sources of plant-based omega-3 fats come from sources like:

  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Soybeans/soy products

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Foods to avoid if you have Crohn’s

High-fat foods

Fatty foods can worsen Crohn’s symptoms in some people and can worsen diarrhea since fat takes longer to digest and puts extra strain on your digestive system.

While including some healthy fats in your diet is important, be mindful of how often you eat high-fat foods from animal sources and processed foods, such as:

  • Non-lean cuts of beef or pork
  • Lamb
  • Poultry with the skin on
  • Processed meat like bacon, salami, etc.
  • Lard and cream, including cream-based soups and sauces
  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Coconut (including coconut oil)
  • Palm oil and palm kernel oil
  • Some baked and fried foods
  • Processed foods with any added fats from the sources above
  • Any fried or greasy food, such as French fries, pizza, etc.

Fibrous fruits, vegetables, and grains

Fruits and vegetables that contain skin and seeds tend to be higher in fiber, especially insoluble fiber. 

Whole grains are also high in this type of fiber, which can irritate inflamed intestinal tissue. 

On the other hand, insoluble fiber absorbs water and forms a gel, so it’s not as irritating to your intestines.

While high-fiber foods are generally considered very healthy, you might need to avoid them if you have Crohn’s, especially during a flare-up. 

Some foods that are especially high in insoluble fiber include:

  • Almonds
  • Apples with the skin on
  • Beans, lentils, and legumes (can also increase gas)
  • Berries 
  • Coconut 
  • Dried apricots, prunes, raisins, dates, and figs
  • Flaxseeds
  • Green peas
  • Oat bran
  • Okra
  • Pears with the skin
  • Popcorn
  • Potatoes with the skins on
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Turnips
  • Walnuts
  • Wheat bran and wheat germ
  • Whole grains

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Lifestyle changes to manage symptoms

  • Eat small meals and snacks throughout the day instead of large meals, which can help ease symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking, which can promote inflammation and worsen symptoms.
  • Some people with Crohn’s might develop lactose intolerance, which is when you can’t break down the sugars in cow’s milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, you’ll need to avoid milk and possibly products made with milk. Cheese and yogurt tend to be better tolerated with lactose intolerance, but it can vary among people.

Conclusion

A diet for Crohn’s disease should minimize strain and irritation of your digestive system, especially during active flare-ups when symptoms are more severe.

In general, some trigger foods for Crohn’s can include fatty foods, high-fiber foods, and substances like alcohol and nicotine.

Lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, lower-fiber or well-cooked fruits and vegetables, and lower-fiber grains should be staples in your Crohn’s disease diet to help reduce uncomfortable symptoms and inflammation.

Eating fiber as tolerated is important since fiber is a beneficial nutrient for overall and gut health.

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Sources

  1. Liu Y, Alookaran JJ, Rhoads JM. Probiotics in Autoimmune and Inflammatory Disorders. Nutrients. 2018 Oct.
  2. Shibabaw T. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertriglyceridemia mechanisms in cardiovascular disease. Mol Cell Biochem. 2021 Feb.

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