Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that affects an estimated 1.3% of US adults. Although no one is sure of what causes the disease, Crohn’s is symptomatic of an autoimmune condition with dysbiosis: a microbial imbalance inside the body.
When your immune system is operating correctly, it works to protect you from foreign invaders, like viruses, by launching an attack called an ‘immune response’. However, in people with Crohn’s, something causes the immune system to launch an attack within the gastrointestinal tract that won’t shut off. This results in GI inflammation, known to Crohn’s suffers as ‘flare-ups’.
Symptoms of flare-ups can include abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite and weight loss.
No one-size fits all
Unfortunately, there’s no cure-all diet known for Crohn’s because of the diverse biological and clinical characteristics of each IBD patient. Even so, maintaining good nutrition is a key principle in the management of Crohn’s and other autoimmune diseases.
Eating for all five defense systems.
A dietary approach for autoimmune diseases should involve foods that support all five of our defense systems – angiogenesis, regeneration, microbiome, DNA protection, and immunity – but should avoid foods that can be hard on an inflamed digestive tract.
Many people living with Crohn’s have found that raw produce and whole grains cause their symptoms to worsen, and this is linked to their high insoluble fiber content. However, due to their numerous health benefits, fruits and vegetables should not be completely avoided by people with Crohn’s.
Any foods that have the ability to calm the immune system can be beneficial, including easily digestible fruits and vegetables with potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Fighting inflammation through food
Reducing inflammation through what we consume is vitally important for our health as chronic inflammation can cause undesirable blood vessels to form, and these vessels can invade and destroy healthy tissues, like the digestive tracts of people’s with Crohn’s. Consuming foods and beverages with anti-inflammatory, antiangiogenic activity can help lessen that damage.
For people with Crohn’s, these should be low fiber foods such as:
- Tomatoes (San Marzano)
- Green Tea
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Since an abnormal gut microbiome triggers some autoimmune diseases, it can also be beneficial for people with Crohn’s to consume foods and beverages that restore healthy gut bacteria, such as:
- Chamomile tea
- Sourdough bread
- Pumpernickel bread
- Cranberry juice
Because Crohn’s is a chronic disease, patients will likely experience periods when the disease flares up and causes symptoms, followed by periods of remission when patients may not notice symptoms at all.
Limiting your intake of foods and beverages that have been found to trigger inflammation will help to avoid frequent flare-ups – foods such as high-fiber whole grains, high-fat meat, and dairy products, spicy foods, foods with artificial ingredients, alcoholic drinks, and caffeine. Switching out fried and fatty foods for leaner baked and broiled items will also help, as these foods can be as hard on our digestive system as they are on our overall health.
Some of the specific foods known to irritate the digestive tract and cause Crohn’s flare-ups include:
- Beans and lentils
- Whole grain foods
- Wild or brown rice
- Black and cayenne pepper
- Chili powder
- Red meat
- Dark meat poultry
- Artificial sweeteners
- Carbonated soda
- Caffeinated tea and coffee
Tips for replacing the foods you love.
- If you regularly drink tea or coffee then try caffeine-free coffee alternatives or herbal teas instead.
- If you enjoy dairy products, then try dairy substitutes such as milk, yogurt, and cheese made from plants like soy, coconut, almond, flax, oats or hemp.
- Instead of eating meat, opt for proteins that are lower in fat and better for your overall health, like fish, shellfish, organic tofu, and other soy products.
- Nut butters, like peanut and almond butter, are also rich in protein and easy on digestion.
- For your carbs, stick with lower-fiber white rice and pasta, well-cooked vegetables, potatoes, and oatmeal.
I must also reiterate that dietary management of Crohn’s disease is highly personalized, and that patients should work one-on-one with a dietitian to identify the best foods for them to avoid.
For more information on Crohn’s and IBS, visit the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.