Diarrhea. The word alone is enough to make you feel uncomfortable.
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We’ve all experienced diarrhea. In fact, most people deal with it a few times a year after a disagreeable meal, bacterial infection or some other stomach-churning mechanism that turns your poop loose and watery.
The “runs” typically only last a day or so. (Let’s give some thanks for that, right?) But even if the very idea of hitting the kitchen during that time makes you queasy, you’ve got to eat and drink something.
Now the good news: Your food and drink choices can help ease diarrhea symptoms and get you back to feeling normal. Let’s set the menu with gastroenterologist and nutrition specialist Donald Kirby, MD.
Foods that help with diarrhea
The No. 1 rule for eating when you have diarrhea? Keep it simple. This isn’t the time to go on an exotic food and drink binge. “Plain and simple food is what people usually tolerate very well,” confirms Dr. Kirby.
So, here’s what to put on your plate and in your cups.
The BRAT diet
“BRAT” does not mean bratwurst in this instance. (Remember, we’re keeping foods plain, which definitely rules out this tailgating delicacy.)
The BRAT diet is an acronym that stands for:
- Bananas. Starch in the fruit can help absorb water in your colon, which works to firm up your stool. Plus, it’s rich in potassium, a key electrolyte you’re losing with diarrhea.
- Rice. Select white rice over brown rice in this case, as it’s easier on your stomach.
- Applesauce. Look to grab unsweetened applesauce to cut down on sugar.
- Toast. Try to use the more easily digestible white bread instead of whole grain bread.
Now, from a nutrition perspective, the BRAT diet isn’t the best. It’s lacking in protein, fiber and many vitamins. But the goal of the BRAT diet isn’t to check every nutritional box. Instead, it’s a quick and effective way to firm up your stool.
So, consider it a temporary solution to use for a day or two, says Dr. Kirby.
If you’re looking to add to the BRAT diet, the following foods can bring a little variety while also being gentle on your stomach:
- Dry cereal.
- Boiled or baked potatoes (peeled).
- Baked chicken with the skin removed.
Diarrhea often isn’t a one-and-done ordeal. Frequent trips to the bathroom for diarrhea can lead to a significant loss of fluid over the course of a day — and that can quickly leave you dehydrated.
Replenishing your body’s internal fluid and nutrient supply is essential to avoid dehydration and its complications. The solution? Try sipping on electrolyte-heavy drinks (such as Gatorade® or Pedialyte®).
Electrolyte drinks offer a bonus given the amount of sodium and sugar in the mixture. The sodium slows fluid loss and helps with fluid retention. The sugar, meanwhile, helps your body to absorb sodium. Win-win!
Salt has sodium, which — as we mentioned above — helps maintain fluid levels. Nibbling on saltine crackers or pretzels can give you a quick boost of sodium while also being gentle on your stomach.
And there’s always chicken noodle soup, the classic “sick food” menu item, which typically includes a decent amount of sodium. (Added bonus: The bouillon broth can help guard against dehydration.)
“We tend not to want people to have too much salt or sodium in general, but when you’re having significant diarrhea, you want to make sure you’re getting enough to stay out of the emergency room,” notes Dr. Kirby.
Eating food with probiotics can help your gut recover from a diarrheal infection. The live bacteria in probiotics help restore the beneficial intestinal bacteria needed to maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
Yogurt or kefir, a fermented milk drink, would be good choices despite being dairy products, which are typically a no-no with diarrhea, says Dr. Kirby. (Just make sure the yogurt or kefir are low in sugar.)
Food to avoid when you have diarrhea
As important as it is to eat the right foods when you have diarrhea, it’s equally important to stay away from food that might trigger more gastric distress and worsen the situation.
Avoid these items to give your belly a break:
- Citrus fruits (such as oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes).
- Milk and dairy products.
- Fried or fatty food.
- Spicy food.
- Sugary sweet items (including those sweetened with artificial ingredients such as aspartame, erythritol and sorbitol.)
- Coffee and other caffeinated drinks.
- Carbonated beverages.
When to see a doctor for diarrhea
A bout of diarrhea should be short in duration. But if it continues for more than a few days despite diet modifications, increased fluid intake and anti-diarrheal medications … well, it’s time to check in with a healthcare provider.
See a doctor, too, if you experience severe pain or your stool contains blood or pus.