What to eat if you have Crohn’s
by Anne Harding
If you’ve got inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you need to make calories count.
Certain foods won’t speed gut healing, but there are plenty that can help you stay well-nourished without aggravating symptoms, says Tracie Dalessandro, RD, a nutritionist based in Briarcliff Manor, NY, who also has Crohn’s disease.
Here are 13 foods that should be easy on your digestion. However, the right Crohn’s diet is highly individual—so use trial and error to see what works for you.
Many people with Crohn’s are lactose intolerant. Luckily, there’s a great dairy alternative: almond milk, which is made from ground-up almonds and can be fortified to contain as much calcium as regular milk (check the label).
Almond milk also has vitamin D and E, but contains no cholesterol or saturated fat, and fewer calories than cow’s milk. Many varieties contain added sweetener; choosing an unsweetened product cuts about 20 calories per serving.
Scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-cooked—any way you prepare them, eggs are an inexpensive source of easily digested protein.
Make sure you’ve always got some in the fridge.
Eggs and toast are a standby for Marge McDonald, 46, during a flare up, along with potatoes and egg noodles. “Anything non-greasy,” says McDonald, who directs the Burlington Senior Center in Massachusetts and has ulcerative colitis. “Honestly when I’m flaring I just end up eating carbs.”
This comfort food is a great choice if you have Crohn’s. “Oatmeal is even OK when I’m flaring, if I’m not flaring too badly,” McDonald says.
Insoluble fiber—the kind in raw veggies, fruits, and nuts—draws water into the colon and can worsen diarrhea for those with IBD. But oatmeal has soluble fiber, which absorbs water and passes more slowly through your digestive tract, says Dalessandro, who is also a nutritional advisor to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.
“If you have very soft-cooked oatmeal, that’s a great breakfast,” she says.
“A lot of people I see are really, really afraid of eating vegetables,” says Dalessandro. “Most of the time their diet consists of a lot of white carbohydrate products, which of course are OK, but they don’t have a lot of nutrients.”
But even during a flare-up, pureed veggies like pumpkins, butternut squash, carrots and parsnips are fine. And you won’t lose nutrients, like you do when vegetables are boiled.
Twenty-five percent of the calories you eat should come from protein, which is key to healing.
Lean protein, like seafood, is your best option. “Fish is extremely beneficial, especially fish that’s high in omega-3s, like salmon,” Dalessandro says.
Shrimp and white fish like tilapia and flounder are also nutritious and easily digestible. Prepare seafood by steaming, broiling or grilling, and skip the deep-fat fryer.
People with Crohn’s may think they should avoid fruit, but even during a flare, tropical fruits like bananas are an easy-to-digest, nutritious option.
“Mango and papaya are super-high in nutrients and very, very easy to digest,” Dalessandro says.
Papaya contains an enzyme, papain, which helps your body digest proteins; this butter-soft fruit is also rich in vitamin C, vitamin A, folate and potassium, and is available year-round. Cantaloupe is a good choice too.
Beans may sound like the ultimate no-no for anyone who’s having digestive trouble.
But pureed chickpeas—the main component of hummus—and well-pureed lentils are a terrific source of lean protein and other nutrients, and should be safe even if your Crohn’s is acting up, Dalessandro says.
Chicken and turkey are protein-rich, and lean if you limit your consumption to the white meat.
They’re also mild and easy to digest, making them a go-to protein source for anyone with IBD.
Soft, smooth, and chock-full of good fats, B vitamins, vitamin E, and potassium, avocados should definitely be on the menu if you have Crohn’s disease.
They’re also one of the only fruits that contains digestion-friendly soluble fiber along with the insoluble type.
A Crohn’s diagnosis doesn’t mean your salad days are over, says Dalessandro.
As long as you’re not experiencing severe diarrhea, you should be able to enjoy a salad made from butter lettuce.
Also known as Boston Bibb, this widely available light-green lettuce is much more tender and easily digestible than other salad greens.
Roasted red peppers
Brilliant and super-tasty, roasted peppers—with skins removed—are delicious, nutritious, and safe for people with Crohn’s to eat, Dalessandro says.
Add them to a salad, slip them into a sandwich, or even use them as a soup garnish.
But see how they affect your digestion; they may not be for everyone. “For me peppers have always been a really bad food,”says McDonald.
A traditional choice for anyone who’s suffering from stomach woes, white rice and other refined carbohydrates may not be super-nutritious, but they’re easy on the gut. They can also provide the calories you need during intestinally challenging times.
Just make sure these simple carbs aren’t crowding protein and well-cooked veggies out of your diet.
Smooth nut butters
Nuts are an excellent source of good fats, vitamin E, and protein, but digesting them presents an insurmountable challenge to most people with Crohn’s.
You can get the benefits of nuts without aggravating symptoms by eating nut butters.
Make sure to choose smooth, not chunky versions of these products. In addition to peanut butter, most stores now stock almond and cashew butter, too.