Diarrhoea can be very unpleasant and leaving it untreated can also lead to dehydration, weight loss and exhaustion so it’s important to keep your body nourished.
But you may be concerned about what to eat when you have diarrhoea and whether some foods can make diarrhoea worse.
Despite what you may have read, it’s normally safe to keep eating whatever you want. However, there is some evidence to suggest that eating certain foods may lessen some of your symptoms, while certain other foods could prolong a bout of diarrhoea, or make your stools even looser -- making your symptoms worse.
What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is when you pass stools that are looser than what is normal for you or open your bowels more frequently than you normally do. Other symptoms associated with diarrhoea can include abdominal cramps or pain, nausea or vomiting.
Most cases of diarrhoea clear up after a few days, and you can normally manage the symptoms at home. However, you may need to see a doctor if you pass black stools, or notice any blood when you go to the toilet. You should also go straight to the doctor if:
- you notice any sign of dehydration
- you can’t stop vomiting
- you notice signs of weight loss you have a severe and continuous stomach ache
- your diarrhoea is particularly frequent or severe
How to treat diarrhoea at home
You can’t always stop diarrhoea from happening, but you may be able to lessen your symptoms by making small changes to your diet and the way that you eat.
Drink plenty of liquids
Liquids are easier to digest, which means that your bowels won’t have to work as hard, and you minimise the risk of further irritation. Liquids can also keep you hydrated, which is important because diarrhoea can make you lose a lot of fluids.
To prevent dehydration, some experts recommend drinking at least 1 full cup of water after each bout of diarrhoea.
Try to drink plenty of water, diluted apple juice or weak tea. Broths, frozen ice pops and plain gelatine can also help to keep you nourished without irritating your bowels.
Eat plenty of bland foods
Like liquids, bland foods are easy to digest and they’re less likely to irritate your stomach. Bland, starchy and low-fibre foods are also considered to be ‘binding’ which means that they might help to make your stools firmer.
Things like white rice, peeled potatoes and plain toast are all good examples of a bland food. Bananas are also a good choice because they contain a lot of potassium, and your potassium levels can decrease when you get diarrhoea.
Eat salty foods
Eating salty foods can help replace essential salts that your body can lose each time you have an episode of diarrhoea.
Try to eat things like pretzels and soups and drink sports drinks, but take care to avoid options that contain artificial sweeteners like sorbitol, because there is some evidence to suggest that these chemicals can make diarrhoea worse in some people.
Eat little and often
Small meals are easier to digest, so try to eat light meals whenever you can.
It’s perfectly okay to stop eating for a couple of days if you lose your appetite completely, but you should drink plenty of liquids and start eating solid food as soon as you’re able to tolerate it.
Avoid high-fibre foods
Foods that are high in fibre can cause bloating and gas. They can also increase the frequency with which you pass stools, so try to avoid raw fruit and vegetables, wholegrain breads and products that contain bran.
You can (and should) still eat most vegetables, but you should remove the skin and seeds whenever you can, and cook them before you eat them. You should also avoid vegetables that are known to make you gassy, including broccoli, beans, and leafy green vegetables.
Avoid fatty foods
Fatty or greasy foods can encourage loose stools, so try to avoid fried foods, and dishes that are served with a creamy sauce.
If you eat meat, you should also try to pick lean cuts of beef or pork, or choose turkey or chicken that has been steamed to reduce excess fat.
Spicy foods and alcohol can also prolong a bout of diarrhoea.
Avoid milk and dairy produce
Diarrhoea can make you sensitive to lactose - a sugar that’s found in a lot of dairy produce. As such, it’s normally best to cut down on things like cheese, milk or cream until your diarrhoea has passed.
You may find that you can still tolerate low-lactose dairy products like yoghurt, or cheeses like mozzarella, feta or Swiss cheese.
What about anti-diarrhoea medications?
You can buy anti-diarrhoea medications at most pharmacies. These medicines may help to reduce some of your symptoms, but they are normally unnecessary and most episodes of diarrhoea will resolve on their own.
It’s also important to note that most anti-diarrhoeal medicines should not be given to children, or be taken if you have blood or mucus in your stool or if you have a fever.
What to eat after you’ve had diarrhoea
You should return to your normal diet within 24 to 48 hours of your symptoms passing, and follow normal guidance for eating well unless your symptoms return.
Can diarrhoea be prevented?
You may not be able to prevent all cases of diarrhoea, but you can reduce your risk by maintaining high standards of hygiene and taking steps to avoid food poisoning.