The educational content in this post, elaborated in collaboration with Bromatech, was independently developed and approved by the GMFH publishing team and editorial board.

What you eat matters for managing ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Diet can affect the types and functions of the gut microbiota, as well as the gut’s protective lining. Although there is no specific food or diet that can prevent or cure ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, diet can help keep your gut healthy and prevent inflammation.

The most widely studied diet therapy for IBD is an all-liquid, formula-based meal-replacement diet (called exclusive enteral nutrition or EEN). EEN provides all the essential nutrients from the formula, while excluding all other foods. EEN has been shown to have several benefits, including inducing remission (children), reducing inflammation, promoting mucosal healing and improving nutritional status. Ultimately, EEN is to be used for a defined period of time, then food is gradually re-introduced.

While there is no perfect diet that works for everyone with IBD, Natasha Haskey, PhD, who is a trained registered dietitian with a focus on IBD, explained to GMFH editors via email that a Mediterranean-like diet is recommended for individuals with IBD looking to eat a more healthy balanced diet and reduce inflammation.

High levels of consumption of vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, olive oil and lean protein sources have been shown to have a protective effect against developing IBD as well as contribute to a healthy gut microbiota. In contrast, Western dietary patterns, high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, alcohol, red meat and food additives (excessive salt, emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners) promote intestinal inflammation and can worsen symptoms, and thus should be limited.

Fats are an important nutrient to pay attention to in IBD. Natasha’s PhD research focused on studying the impact of dietary fats in a rodent model with chronic colitis. According to Natasha: “We saw that a diet rich in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (commonly found in corn, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils) promoted inflammation. In contrast, a diet that was rich in olive oil and contained omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (from fish) and some saturated fat (milk fat) promoted immune homeostasis in ulcerative colitis.” Based on those findings, in IBD it would be prudent to reduce the content of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet and increase the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and olive oil along with a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains with some dairy intake.

As for when diet can help the most, Haskey acknowledges that diet can help manage symptoms and inflammation in both active disease and remission. However, given that each patient has their own microbial and genetic makeup, the most appropriate diet should be personalized. According to Natasha: “The diet needs to be personalized to each individual, considering their disease and what works within their lifestyle. Consulting with a dietitian with expertise in managing IBD is essential to develop an individualized plan.”

As our knowledge regarding the impact of diet on managing IBD improves, there are more opportunities to use diet as a supplementary therapy to control inflammation and alleviate symptoms. Before choosing one of the fad diets promoted for IBD online, speak to your healthcare provider so they can recommend a personalized eating plan that works for you.

Meanwhile, this infographic is a good starting point for considering the dietary components that should be promoted and limited for living better with IBD:

References used on the infographcic:

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  • Liu, S., Zhao, W., Lan, P., and Mou, X. (2020). The microbiome in inflammatory bowel diseases: from pathogenesis to therapy. Protein Cell 15, 331–345.
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