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Crohn's Disease and Your Diet

Paying attention to what you eat is important when you have Crohn’s disease. Making smart food choices may help you manage your symptoms and get all the nutrients you need.

What is the Crohn's disease diet?

People with Crohn’s disease differ in how they respond to foods. No single eating plan works well for everyone with the condition. But there are certain diet changes that often help with specific issues. For example, some people with Crohn’s disease develop lactose intolerance. They have symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, and gas after consuming lactose. Lactose is a sugar found naturally in milk. If this is an issue for you, limiting milk and other dairy products may be part of your eating plan.

The symptoms of Crohn’s disease tend to come and go. Your eating plan should tell you how to change your diet as needed. For example, you may need to skip whole grains when your symptoms are flaring up. But you might be able to eat them during symptom-free (remission) periods.

Work with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian nutritionist to identify foods that make your Crohn’s disease worse. Together, you can find an eating plan that works for you.

How can this diet help you?

Crohn’s disease can affect your nutrition in a number of ways. It may dampen your appetite. Plus, symptoms such as diarrhea may decrease your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If these problems aren’t addressed, they could lead to low nutrient levels or unwanted weight loss. But the right diet may help prevent that.

Watching what you eat may also help you feel better. Often, you may find that certain foods make your symptoms worse. Passing up these foods during Crohn’s disease attacks (flares) may lessen your symptoms and help healing.

Does this diet have any risks?

When your Crohn’s disease is acting up, you may sometimes need to skip some foods that would otherwise be good for you. That could mean missing out on nutrients. It’s important to find healthy substitutes. Make sure you know what you can eat and not eat during flares. That way, you can get a nutritious diet without making your symptoms worse.

What foods should you eat?

When you’re in the midst of a flare, soft or bland foods may cause less discomfort than high-fiber or spicy ones. Good choices include:

  • Certain cooked vegetables, such as asparagus tips, squash, and potatoes without the skin

  • Low-fiber fruits, such as cantaloupe, honeydew, and cooked fruits

  • Refined grains, such as white pasta, white rice, and gluten-free bread

  • Healthy protein foods, such as fish, chicken (white meat), lean pork, eggs, and firm tofu

  • Beverages such as water, broth, and tomato juice

During symptom-free periods, you can broaden your diet. Focus on eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Also include healthy protein foods.

Low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products are typically part of a balanced diet, too. But if you have lactose intolerance, you may need to limit these foods. Yogurt and hard cheeses, such as cheddar or Swiss, are sometimes OK because they contain less lactose than milk. You can also buy lactose-free milk and dairy products. Or you can buy a lactase product, which breaks down lactose, to add to your milk.

What foods should you pass up?

During a flare, skip foods that make your symptom worse. Possible problem foods include:

  • Raw or gas-causing vegetables, such as green leafy veggies, broccoli, and cauliflower

  • Raw fruits with peel or seeds, such as raw apples, blackberries, and raspberries

  • Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain breakfast cereal, and popcorn

  • High-fiber protein foods, such as beans, nuts, and seeds

  • High-fat foods, such as fatty meats, fried foods, butter, and cream

  • Sugary foods and beverages, such as pastries, cookies, candies, soda, and juices

  • Spicy ("hot") foods, such as chili peppers, salsa, and spicy curry

  • Carbonated ("fizzy") beverages as well as drinks containing caffeine or alcohol

If you have lactose intolerance, you may also need to stay away from dairy products such as milk, cream cheese, and feta cheese. Ask your provider or dietitian for guidance.

Tips for following this diet

Try eating 4 to 6 small meals a day rather than 3 large ones. This often helps manage the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

Some people with Crohn’s disease also get help from nutritional supplement drinks or homemade protein shakes. Ask your provider or dietitian whether such drinks fit into your eating plan.

Suggestions for planning meals

  • Instead of creamy soup, have a broth-based soup that contains white noodles or soft vegetables.

  • Instead of a mixed green salad, have a fruit salad made with cantaloupe and honeydew.

  • Instead of a baked potato with skin, have mashed potatoes made without added milk.

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