Your SIBO-Friendly "Safe Foods List"
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Discovering your own, personal "safe foods list" opens the door to the possibility of finding digestive comfort, and the calm belly you deserve.
IBS is the Mother of SIBO
Long before I ever heard of SIBO, I knew I had "digestive problems." Initially, they were diagnosed as an alternative acronym: IBS-C. For those who don’t know, IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is a functional bowel disorder, meaning it has no known apparent physical cause. People with IBS suffer from gastrointestinal pain, gas and bloating, and exhibit altered bowel habits of different types. IBS-C means your altered bowel habits show up as Constipation, IBS-D means you get Diarrhea, and IBS-M means Mixed, an awesome combo of C and D. (IBS-M is also known as IBS-A, for Alternating.)
Anyway, I've suffered from IBS-C since I was a young woman. Sometimes it’s gotten better, sometimes worse. I’ve dealt with it in different ways, applying all my knowledge as a lifelong natural foods devotee and alternative health seeker, an armchair (lay) herbalist and, finally, after earning my Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition in the early 2000s, a bona fide clinical nutritionist.
My gut got really bad in the spring of 2013. I was constantly bloated, my pants didn't fit, I felt like I couldn't eat anything. So one morning, while writing about all this in my journal, I decided to put on my Tireless Investigator hat and try to figure it out.
What I did was to think about different foods and how they felt in my belly when I ate them. I'm a sensitive person, highly empathic. I've known for a long time that even just by holding a food in my hands, say, a bag of Red Hot Blues organic corn chips (cue salivary glands) I can sense how that food will feel in my body. (Often: not so great.)
Our mind-body connection is very strong. Even in response to a thought, the body knows.
So, crouched there on my chair, positioned to alleviate the pain of an agonizing IBS flare, I tuned into myself and imagined different foods—how they looked, smelled, tasted. Most food thoughts made my innards clench. But a very few caused no response at all, or even a sense of comfort. Our mind-body connection is very strong. Even in response to a thought, the body knows.
After imagining lots of different foods in my mind, I came up with a short list of safe foods that I knew I could eat without causing myself more pain.
wilted spinach • chicken broth • soft-cooked eggs
It's a very short list, true. But I knew it was super safe. I could eat anything on this list of three and not feel sick! Hope glimmered. It was a beginning.
From there, I spread out.
More Safe Foods:
salmon, shrimp, fish
bone broth (chicken, fish, beef)
raw goat cheese
raw f & v
ripe, low-acid tomatoes
sweet red peppers
carrots, carrot juice
very dark chocolate
One problem with my list was the protein section. I was a strict vegetarian at the beginning of 2013—had been for a full year. In fact, I was coming off of several years of eating a plant-based, pescatarian diet (i.e. vegetarian + fish) and for much of that time, a raw food diet with plenty of salads, raw vegetable juices and green smoothies, plus nuts, seeds and dehydrated delicacies.
I was very reluctant to put chicken on the list. Even the fish and shrimp was a concession. But I could tell, in my gut, that chicken would digest. It was a sad moment for me. I would really rather not eat animals. This is still true. It was a big coming to terms.
I realize now that because of my particular IBS-C situation (think slow transit time and an extra-long, "redundant" colon) eating so much fiber and complex carbohydrates was a bad idea. Fiber and complex carbs, as well as fructose and other simple sugars, are highly FERMENTABLE. Inside your warm, dark, juicy intestines these carbohydrates get digested by bacteria that make GAS.
Generally, gut bacteria are supposed to hang out in your large intestine, where they belong. In fact, we need carb-fermenting bacteria in our large intestines, so much so that in the colon, these little guys are even affectionately known as friendly flora.
But after a while, if the large intestines don't empty out regularly, the semi-digested foodstuff in your small intestines stalls. You get backed up. And if those fun-loving, friendly colonic bacteria sneak on up the tubular road to party in the small intestine, replicating themselves into millions of bacteria babies, it’s a bad situation. Then you’ve got Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. SIBO.
The only way to get those microbes out of there—or at least reduce their numbers—is to kill them off. This may be accomplished in one of two ways. One: Murdering them with antibiotic drugs or herbal antimicrobial agents. Two: Starving them out. Which brings me back to my safe food list, and another really interesting thing.
Soon after I came up with the above list (which, by the way, has been added to, subtracted from and refined over time since I first created it in 2013) I started doing a bunch of research online. First I discovered FODMAPS: Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, i.e. gas-producing sugars and starches. (Within five years, the low-FODMAPS was destined to become one of the most well-researched successful dietary treatments for IBS, but back in 2013 it was fringe.)
Then I learned more about GAPS (the Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet) which promoted using bone broth and cultured probiotic foods to support gut-healing, and it's older cousin SCD (the Specific Carbohydrate Diet), both of which eliminate sugary foods and high starch beans, grains and potatoes from the menu.
When I put these two diets together, low-FODMAPS + GAPS, there was my list!
I knew I was on to something.
Right around that time, an article came out in the Townsend Letter that recommended the same crossover diet for treating SIBO: a low-FODMAPS, grain-free, broth-based GAPS/SCD-style program. I was so excited when I found that article, written by naturopathic doctors Alison Siebecker and Steven Sandberg-Lewis, now legendary in the SIBO community.
The Siebecker-Sandberg-Lewis article confirmed that people with my kind of gastrointestinal symptoms seem to be okay eating only the foods that are allowed on both diets (low-FODMAPS and GAPS/SCD), because these foods don’t feed the bacterial overgrowth. In fact, eating this diet can even heal the problem, provided the underlying cause (in my case, C) is also addressed.
Since those days, more research has been done on SIBO, more people are writing about it and more food lists and dietary interventions have been proposed. Dr. Siebecker, for instance, has created a detailed, color coded downloadable list that is fabulous.
It’s very helpful to read other people's legal/illegal food lists but if you have IBS or SIBO, I strongly encourage you to do what I did:
Sit quietly with yourself.
Access your inner wisdom.
Make your own list.
In other words: Honor your intuition.
There might be some foods on the list of someone else that won't agree with you. Others that are missing from their list that don’t bother you at all. The bottom line is this: Only you can know what your own personal safe foods are.
Your short list of truly safe foods, the ones you’ll go to during a flare, is likely very short. Any expanded lists will only be accurate sometimes, depending on whether or not you are flaring, and to what degree. But the short list—that's your go-to. And boy is it nice to have a safe place to rest!
For me, a medium poached egg, cooked in broth, on a soft green bed of wilted spinach is calm belly heaven. What’s your pleasure?