You won’t hear this advice often: Leave fiber out of your diet. It’s the opposite of all dietary recommendations for good health. It’s also a strategy for sensitive guts called the low residue diet (also known as a low fiber diet). “The purpose of the low residue diet is to reduce roughage that generates cramps, gas and other symptoms,” says Dr. Wilson Jackson, a gastroenterologist based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Fiber is the indigestible component of plants we eat – such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds – and it plays a crucial role in gut health. “Eating high-fiber foods leaves a residue in the gastrointestinal tract that adds bulk to the stool, draws liquid into the bowel and pushes stool out,” explains Katrina Hartog, a registered dietitian and senior director of clinical nutrition at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Eating high-fiber food is also associated with:
Despite the benefits, digesting fiber can irritate the GI tract in someone with a sensitive gut, causing:
The low residue diet offers a break from fiber-induced GI distress. The diet drops dietary fiber to 8 grams per day from the normal 25 to 38 grams of fiber recommended for generally healthy people. Low fiber intake helps ease GI tract irritation and reduce stool frequency and bulk.
To reach low fiber levels, you’ll have to eliminate just about all fiber-rich foods from the menu including:
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also recommends avoiding the following foods on the low residue diet, since they can cause GI distress:
The low residue diet features easy-to-digest foods that won’t irritate your GI tract. The choices include:
What does a day of meals look like on the low residue diet? You might start with scrambled eggs and white toast for breakfast; have a cup of chicken noodle soup and half a tuna sandwich on white sourdough bread for lunch; a snack of saltine crackers; and then chicken breast, boiled potatoes or carrots and canned green beans for dinner.
In addition, you’ll need to drink lots of water and avoid beverages with too much sugar. “Sugary juices can run through the system too quickly and cause loose stool,” Hartog says.
The low residue diet is intended for people with certain GI conditions. They include:
While the low residue diet may help ease GI symptoms, it still comes with some risks. For example:
In the short term, you can avoid potential risks by:
But the low residue diet isn’t meant for the long term. “For acute issues, we’d recommend being on the diet for five to seven days and then adding fiber back in. But it’s all patient-specific,” Hartog says. “If you and I were on a low residue diet, you might be able to add back foods quicker than I would or vice versa.”
In some cases, it may take longer than a week to get GI symptoms under control. That may be safe for some people. “If you take a well-nourished person with a Crohn’s disease flare, they can safely sustain the low residue diet for three months, presuming they’ll get back on a regular diet,” Jackson says. “But if you maintain this diet for years on end, there are deficiencies that can develop, and you’ll need to find other ways to get healthy foods into your diet.”
That can be especially challenging for people with GI cancer whose treatment may last for many months.
In those cases, Jackson suggests slowly adding healthy, fibrous foods back in your diet and breaking them up with a food processor or blender. “For example, take kale, put it in a blender and then drink it. You can do the same thing with an apple. You won’t have a lot of the side effects that normally come with those foods,” he says.
But sustaining any type of restrictive diet is difficult. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. “Get in touch with a dietitian or use internet resources with well-researched recommendations and ways to manage your condition,” Jackson says. “And remember to keep your doctor in the loop about how you’re feeling.”
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