FODMAPS causes Wheat Problems and IBS

man standing in front of a stall of bread
April 29, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Here’s one of the quirkier acronyms I’ve seen—FODMAPS, for:

  • Fermentable
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Disaccharides
  • Monosaccharides
  • Polyols

Also known as short-chain carbohydrates, FODMAPS are present in varying degrees in an astonishing variety of our everyday food. And they’re well-known troublemakers for many people, linked to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

As the name suggests, IBS is a very unpleasant condition, unless you somehow enjoy abdominal pain, bloating, distension, gas, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of all of the above.

How do FODMAPs cause IBS?

Many people have varying degrees of trouble fully absorbing FODMAPS when they reach the small intestine. The partially absorbed molecules then travel to the large intestine. There, our gut bacteria draw water in to digest the FODMAPs (here comes diarrhea)—and here comes IBS.

As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that a healthy gut leads to overall good health—and vice versa: a troubled gut is health trouble overall. So IBS is not a local condition. It affects every facet of your health.

Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Australia’s Monash University, has found that this is indeed the case. A low-FODMAP diet relieved IBS-like symptoms, as it does for about 70 percent of people with IBS. Gibson estimates that, overall, about 10 percent of the population may be FODMAP-sensitive.

What’s the best diet approach if you think you have IBS?

FODMAPs are so ubiquitous in our foods that you’ll have to work with a dietician and your doctor to zero in on specific foods that trouble your digestive system. That said, here’s some homework you can do to help them help you:

  • Limit or eliminate foods that may make diarrhea, gas, and bloating worse. These may include:
    • Caffeine
    • Alcohol
    • Carbonated drinks
    • Milk products
    • Foods high in sugar
    • Fatty foods
    • Gas-producing foods (e.g., beans, cabbage, and broccoli)
    • The artificial sweeteners sorbitol and xylitol

A full list would show a hundred likely suspects, including some you wouldn’t expect.

Vegetables? Yes, including artichokes, asparagus, garlic, leeks, and onions.

Fruits? Yes—apples, boysenberries, figs, mangoes, pears, watermelon.

If one of your symptoms is constipation, a first line of attack is to try a high-fiber diet: 25 grams daily for women, 38 grams for men. Drink plenty of water if you take this route.

If your symptoms are diarrhea, gas, or bloating, eating smaller amounts of food, four to six times a day, is better than eating full-size meals two or three times a day.

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Whatever your case, you should definitely keep a daily diary of what you eat and whether you have symptoms after eating. That will give you, your doctor, and your dietician team a head start in constructing a carefully calibrated diet plan that should help.

Be patient. This is going to be a weeks-long project—but won’t saying bye-bye to those nasty symptoms be a welcome payoff?

What else might cause IBS? Wheat? Gluten? Big Agro? Big Baking?

There are many people who are truly gluten-sensitive. Their diagnosed celiac disease is the proof. But what’s the story with people who have symptoms of gluten sensitivity but who aren’t, in fact, gluten-sensitive?

Many people with IBS-type symptoms just assume that they are gluten sensitive—especially given the past few years’ media noise about gluten. But some researchers are pretty certain that it’s not gluten to which these people are sensitive.

Unfortunately, there are any number of other offending food compounds at play.

“New and improved” wheat.

One researcher and writer on the subject, cardiologist William Davis, believes that wheat and its gluten proteins were completely safe and digestible until the scientists showed up in the 1960’s. With them came hybrid wheat varieties, never seen before, says Davis, in his book Wheat Belly. The result? A new, non-natural protein—gliadin—that’s been linked to a hefty handful of chronic health problems, including IBS symptoms, obesity and diabetes.

It’s also the “science” of Big Agriculture.

I lean heavily in Dr. Davis’s direction, and add two additional serious concerns.

  1. Wheat of any kind has vastly more sugar content than most of us would ever guess. We all know the health risks there: obesity and diabetes.
  2. The most widely used chemical herbicide in the US, Monsanto’s Roundup, has been linked to birth defects, cancers, abnormal fetal development, miscarriages, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a damning list of other conditions. According to the EPA, about 100 million pounds are applied to US farms and lawns every year. That’s why I always recommend eating organic when possible.

Beware of commercial baking.

A wheat breeder at Washington State University, Stephen Jones, believes wheat and gluten can play a role, but only because of what we do with them in the world of commercial, mass production baking.

In our enormous commercial bakeries, special yeasts and other additives have slashed the rising time for bread dough from hours or even days down to minutes. In his own research kitchen, Jones has found that letting bread dough rise the old-fashioned way—for as long as 12 hours—makes a marked difference in the way the body digests and responds to it.

It seems, the longer fermentation time greatly reduces the potency of the final loaf’s gluten content. So, whenever possible find a small, local bakery and ask how they’re making their goods…or even better, bake your own.

My take on all of these issues is to remain vigilant. Practice “safe eating,” as always. Pay attention to your body, and whenever you suspect something out of the ordinary, see your doctor.

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