After a month on this diet, I noticed some definite changes.
When it comes to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and diet, it can sometimes feel impossible to figure out what’s right for you.
I’ve had Crohn’s disease for 10 years, but I’ve received very little diet advice from my doctors in that time, and have never been offered the opportunity to see a dietitian. Instead, I’ve tried to find my own path by keeping a food diary and eliminating some suspected trigger foods (mine are gluten and dairy) based on my symptoms.
Many people are in a similar situation to me: In the UK, where I live, less than 40% of people admitted to the hospital with IBD in 2013 were seen by a dietitian during their stay. Even by 2021, only 7% of UK hospitals had enough dietitians to meet the IBD standard of care.
Diet with IBD is often person-specific, so I was intrigued to find recent research (and potential guidance) published in the journal Gastroenterology suggesting that two different dietary approaches often recommended for people with gastrointestinal disorders could provide relief from IBD symptoms. According to this study, 43.5% of people with Crohn’s disease who followed a Mediterranean diet achieved symptomatic remission after 6 weeks; about the same number (46.5%) had similar results following the Specific Carbohydrate Diet.
After researching the two diets a bit, the Mediterranean diet — which focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and poultry — seemed much simpler for me to follow and would allow me to still have some of my favorite foods. Since I was actually about to visit Greece for a week, I thought this would be the perfect place to begin my journey. Here’s how it went.
Although you may think relaxing on holiday would help my Crohn’s symptoms, I usually find the opposite, as hot weather is a major trigger for me. I began this diet hoping that it might make my vacation a little more stress-free (and make my belly a little happier).
On arrival, I visited the local supermarket and stocked up on food for our apartment. I found plenty of options: Hummus is always a safe food for me, and so is anything made from sheep or goat milk (just not cow’s milk!). While I was reading labels, I discovered traditional Greek feta was safe (made from sheep’s milk), so I added it to my shopping cart.
I opted for light breakfasts, like rice cakes and nut butter (I’d packed some of these in my bag, in case I couldn’t find them locally) or yogurt and fruit. This change isn’t necessarily needed for the Mediterranean diet, but since I knew my lunches and dinners would be heavier, a lighter breakfast seemed like a good idea. This approach really seemed to help, especially as I usually have most of my bowel movements in the morning, so I often felt my digestion was calmer by lunch.
It was so easy to stick to the Mediterranean diet for lunches and dinners in Greece. I tried chicken gyros (without bread) and chicken souvlaki; fresh sea bass; fresh prawns, and a range of fish. Side dishes were either rice, vegetables, or homemade potato fries (which were simply potato, olive oil, and sea salt). I often enjoyed these meals with a side of baked feta, and even an occasional glass of wine. Yes, wine. I was starting to like this diet!
Even better, I found that during my first 2 weeks on this diet, every single bowel movement was completely normal — a rare phenomenon for me only experienced during pregnancy! And I had no pain whatsoever. I was shocked, as I was eating out several times a day, living in 85°F (29°C) heat (usually a nightmare for me), and even having an occasional glass of wine with dinner. Had I found my diet?
I arrived back home feeling really healthy, and with great intentions to put the steps in place to stick to the meal plan long-term. This is when I hit my first road bump because a lot of the foods I’d relied on in Greece had processed ingredients added to them when I purchased them in the UK. For example, even hummus contained added sugar and preservatives. Lighter breakfasts didn’t seem so appealing in the colder weather, either. I also found it was harder to stick to the meal plan when cooking from scratch.
A few days later, I noticed I was eating more and more processed food again and my bowel movements were becoming looser and my pain was increasing. It was at this point that I still wasn’t sure if it was being in a different country or the Mediterranean diet that helped but I wanted to give it a proper try. I headed to the supermarket and stocked up on avocado, salmon, olive oil, hummus, feta, and plenty of fresh produce, and ordered a recipe book. A few days later, I felt my bowel movements become more solid again.
That brings us to the final week of this month-long experiment. I started to get more creative with recipes and found I could eat enough variety with plenty of fish, chicken, and some vegetables and fruits (like carrots, sweet potato, and avocado).
As the week progressed, I noticed I was having far fewer loose bowel movements, and most were normal/type 4 on the Bristol Stool Chart. I noticed that my frequency of bowel movements didn’t really decrease (still two to four per day) but I was eating more fiber on this diet, so that might explain it.
I did start to get a little frustrated as I still can’t eat many of the foods that are otherwise included in the diet, such as salad and lots of legumes. However, I now seem to be able to tolerate more fiber than I expected, so I’m able to eat more healthily — bonus!
Overall, I feel this diet has definitely helped some of my IBD symptoms, given me more energy, and just a focus on eating more healthily.
It has helped me find more natural gluten-free options — which can sometimes be hard to do — and I’m really pleased about being able to add natural sheep’s/goat’s milk into my diet as I often worry about getting enough calcium.
I am due for a blood and stool test shortly so I am intrigued to see if there will be any clinical improvements that can be attributed to my adoption of the Mediterranean diet.
While diet advice for IBD can never be universal, I am really pleased with my reduction of symptoms since starting the Mediterranean diet and definitely think it is worth looking into if you’re in a similar position (once you’ve spoken with your doctor first, of course — and a dietitian if possible). As for me, I plan to continue this diet for the foreseeable future!
Medically reviewed on November 04, 2022
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