When you’re experiencing stomach issues, one of the first things to adjust is your diet.
Diarrhea is one common type of stomach upset that can lead to more serious health issues if it’s not treated.
Whether your diarrhea is from something short-term like food poisoning or if you have it more often thanks to a chronic health issue, there are things you can do with your diet to help stop it.
Keep reading to find out what foods you should eat when you have diarrhea and what foods you should avoid.
What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is when you experience loose, watery stools that occur more often than you usually experience bowel movements. Severe diarrhea can cause over 20 bowel movements per day.
In normal, healthy digestion, food passes through your small intestine and then through your large intestine, where most of the water is absorbed.
With diarrhea, the transit time (the time it takes for food to pass completely through your body) is decreased, which gives your large intestine less time to absorb the water in your stool.
The most common type of diarrhea is acute diarrhea, which means it doesn’t last long. Acute diarrhea typically goes away after a couple of days.
Long-term, or chronic diarrhea, is when you have diarrhea lasting more than several days. Chronic diarrhea is usually a sign of an underlying health condition.
Some symptoms of diarrhea include:
- Loose, watery stools occurring at least several times per day
- Abdominal cramps or pain
- Blood in your stool
- Mucus in your stool
- The urgent need to have a bowel movement
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea can be a symptom of several health conditions, many of which are mild and will subside on their own.
Some potential causes of diarrhea are:
A bacterial or viral infection
You can develop diarrhea if exposed to bacterial or viral infection. Viruses like rotavirus and norovirus (also called the stomach flu or stomach bug) can cause diarrhea from toxins being released in your intestines.
If you eat food contaminated with certain pathogens (including bacteria, viruses, and toxins), you can develop diarrhea, among other unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
Food and drinks can become contaminated due to improper washing, storing, cooking, and handling techniques.
If your diarrhea is caused by a foodborne illness (also called food poisoning), you’ll likely develop symptoms within a few hours to a few days of consuming the contaminated item.
Food intolerance or food allergy
Food intolerance is when you have a difficult time digesting a particular food.
Lactose intolerance is one of the most common types of food intolerance. It occurs when your body can’t break down the sugars in the natural milk sugar called lactose. Gluten is another common intolerance some people might have.
Food allergies are different from food intolerances. If you have a food allergy, your immune system views that food as a foreign invader and develops an immune response that can be dangerous.
Symptoms of food allergy can be milder such as causing a rash or diarrhea. Food allergies can also cause severe symptoms like throat swelling and anaphylactic shock, which can be life-threatening.
The most common food allergens are:
- Shellfish (such as crab, crayfish, lobster, and shrimp)
- Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, and pecans)
Side-effects of medications
Some medications can cause diarrhea. Metformin, a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, comes with a risk of causing diarrhea.
Parasites are organisms that feed off their host to survive. You can get a parasitic infection through contaminated food or water, waste, soil, insects, and blood. Some parasites cause diarrhea as a symptom.
Antibiotics can be a useful tool to treat infections, but they have potentially negative side effects. They can kill the good bacteria in your gut, which is called your microbiome or intestinal flora.
When antibiotics kill your good bacteria, you can get diarrhea. While antibiotic-related diarrhea usually clears up within a few days after stopping the antibiotic, some people experience diarrhea longer as their gut bacteria colon recovers (1).
Changes in hormone levels can trigger diarrhea. In some women, fluctuating estrogen and progesterone levels can cause diarrhea. Thyroid hormones can also cause diarrhea, such as with an overactive thyroid.
Malabsorption (fatty stools)
Certain health conditions like cystic fibrosis and pancreatic problems can make it hard for your body to absorb nutrients, such as fat.
When to see a doctor
Severe diarrhea can cause an electrolyte imbalance as you lose important electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Without treatment, electrolyte imbalances can cause serious health problems like seizures and cardiac arrest (heart attack).
You should consult your healthcare provider if your diarrhea isn’t resolved after several days or if you’re becoming dehydrated despite keeping up with your fluid intake.
Your healthcare provider might recommend some over-the-counter medications to treat diarrhea, such as Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) and Imodium (loperamide).
Should I eat if I have diarrhea?
It’s essential to stay hydrated and nourished while you have diarrhea. If you don’t eat when you have diarrhea, you might lose weight and become malnourished.
The key to eating with diarrhea is to eat the right foods as your body recovers from whatever is causing your diarrhea.
If you have chronic diarrhea from a persistent health condition, you might need to follow a special diet depending on your health condition.
For instance, if you have diarrhea from lactose intolerance, you’ll need to eat a low-lactose or lactose-free diet long-term to avoid diarrhea.
For the treatment of acute diarrhea that isn’t linked to underlying food allergies or more complicated health conditions, a diarrhea diet can help ease your symptoms and keep you nourished. Let’s look at what foods to eat and avoid when you have diarrhea.
8 best foods to eat when you have diarrhea
Bananas are a part of the BRAT diet, which stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are bland, low in fiber, and can help bind extra fluid in your digestive tract and help thicken your loose stools.
A BRAT diet is recommended for nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea because it’s easy on your stomach.
Bananas are also rich in potassium, an electrolyte that can become low with persistent diarrhea.
White rice is low in fiber and is one of the foods you can try to eat when you’re experiencing diarrhea.
While it’s usually good to eat plenty of fiber, it’s not something you want to overdo when you have diarrhea. Eating a lot of fiber can worsen diarrhea since it can decrease digestion time.
Whole fruit is high in fiber, especially fruit with skins and seeds. To give your stomach some rest and hopefully reduce the severity of your diarrhea, lower-fiber foods that are soft and easy to digest can help. Applesauce is also rich in water, so it can help rehydrate you after losing fluid from diarrhea.
Like rice, white toast and crackers are a good choice when you have diarrhea. Toast and crackers are low in fiber (as long as you don’t choose whole wheat kinds) and can help absorb extra fluid in your digestive tract.
Psyllium-based fiber supplements
It might seem counterintuitive to use a fiber supplement when you have diarrhea. However, fiber supplements using psyllium husk are a good choice for diarrhea.
Psyllium is rich in soluble fiber, which means it binds water in your digestive tract and can thicken stools. Using a soluble fiber supplement might help thicken stools and reduce the severity of your diarrhea.
If you’re experiencing diarrhea from antibiotic use, yogurt is a great choice to eat. Yogurt and other fermented foods contain probiotics, which are live strains of beneficial bacteria. Eating probiotic-rich foods can help replenish the good bacteria that antibiotic use wiped out.
Yogurt is also free of fiber, which is another benefit during a bout of diarrhea.
Broth-based soup provides sodium, an electrolyte that can become depleted from diarrhea. Soup is easy to digest and can help with hydration as well.
Canned fruits and vegetables
Canned fruits and vegetables are lower in fiber than fresh. They can be a good source of vitamins and minerals while your typical food choices are restricted.
6 foods to avoid when you have diarrhea
Foods that are particularly high in fat, like fried foods, can cause you to have more bowel movements and worsen diarrhea. Instead of fried food, choose those that are baked, steamed, or air-fried to avoid the excess fat.
Drinks that contain caffeine like coffee, energy drinks, and non-herbal teas can worsen diarrhea. Caffeine is a stimulant, so it can stimulate your digestive system and increase the number of bowel movements you have.
Foods high in insoluble fiber
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber decreases digestive transit time, so it doesn’t help improve diarrhea.
Avoid foods high in insoluble fiber like fruit with skins and seeds, whole grain products, raw vegetables, green leafy vegetables, legumes/beans, nuts, and seeds.
Eating high-fat foods isn’t likely to improve diarrhea. Instead of fatty meat like steak, pork, and veal, try leaner protein like skinless chicken, tuna fish, and lean cuts of red meat.
Sugar alcohols are found naturally in some foods, but they are also used as sugar alternatives in processed foods. Anything ending in -ol is a sugar alcohol, such as xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol.
Sugar alcohols can pull extra water into your digestive tract and worsen diarrhea, so you should avoid them.
Eating a lot of simple sugar in the form of sugary drinks, desserts, and other sweetened products can cause your body to pull water into your digestive tract to balance out the sugar (osmotic diarrhea).
What naturally stops diarrhea?
Staying hydrated, eating a low-fiber/BRAT diet, replacing lost electrolytes, and removing the cause (if known – such as a food intolerance) can help naturally stop diarrhea.
Foods for diarrhea prevention
Because the cause of diarrhea varies greatly, you can’t necessarily prevent it unless you know for certain what your trigger is.
FODMAPs are types of carbohydrates that can be difficult to digest and might lead to diarrhea and other stomach upset. Some examples of FODMAPs that might cause diarrhea are lactose (milk sugar), gluten, and high-fructose foods like apples and grapes.
If you experience chronic or frequent diarrhea, keeping a food and symptom log can help pinpoint foods that cause diarrhea. A low FODMAP diet is a great place to start identifying potential trigger foods.
Low-fat, low-fiber foods and those that provide probiotics and electrolytes are good for treating diarrhea. Avoid eating high-(insoluble) fiber foods, high-fat foods, caffeine, and sugar alcohols when you have diarrhea.
If you experience persistent diarrhea, you’ll want to work with your healthcare provider to identify potential causes and make any necessary long-term diet changes to reduce the prevalence of diarrhea.