Should You Avoid Certain Foods With Diverticulitis?

Why the advice to steer clear of nuts and seeds is actually wrong.

If you have even the slightest working knowledge of diverticulitis, you've probably heard the "recommendation" to steer clear of any of the following: nuts, seeds, popcorn, corn—basically anything that seems difficult to fully digest for fear that it will agitate the condition.

Turns out, that's faulty advice. There's no evidence that these foods boost the risk, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). In fact, it directly contradicts the advice healthcare providers give their patients to prevent the condition in the first place (to eat a healthy, high-fiber diet).

However, your diet can affect the possibility of a diverticulitis flare-up. Here's what you need to know about the dietary tweaks that may be helpful.

Young woman holding a burger in front of her face and ready to bite into it
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What Is Diverticulitis?

A diagnosis of diverticulitis means you have one or more little pockets (called diverticula) along the wall of the colon that have become infected or inflamed, according to MedlinePlus. Diverticulitis may be a result of a low-fiber diet. When a person eats a diet that is low in fiber, the result is typically constipation which can cause irritation in the bowels. This irritation can lead to the formation of these little pockets that become inflamed and then infected.

If it's an uncomplicated case, you'll likely be treated at home with rest, a fluids-only diet, and pain medicine. Some people may receive antibiotics. But, it is important to monitor your diet after you've recovered.

How Do You Prevent Flare-ups?

Once you're feeling better, the goal is to prevent another painful episode. Your healthcare provider may suggest a high-fiber diet to try to prevent a flare-up. Once someone has fully recovered from a diverticulitis attack, "he or she should theoretically be eating a normal, healthy, high-fiber diet," said Ryan Warren, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Jill Roberts Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

While there's no surefire way to prevent diverticulitis, dietary fiber can be protective. According to Harvard Health, a high-fiber diet can reduce the risk of developing diverticula in the first place. And if you do develop these little pouches, the chances that they will become inflamed or infected is also reduced.

Fiber is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, and vegetables. According to Harvard Health, fiber makes the process of eliminating food from the body go faster by drawing water into feces to allow feces to pass through the body more easily. This reduces the risk for constipation which can reduce the risk of a diverticulitis flare-up.

Are Nuts and Seeds Ok To Eat?

Healthcare providers used to worry that foods such as nuts, seeds, and popcorn could block and irritate the little sacs that can form along the wall of the colon, leading to diverticulitis. But there was no real evidence to support this theory, according to Harvard Health.

Quite the opposite is true actually. Nuts and seeds are sources of fiber, according to Harvard Health. 10 peanuts contain 1 gram of fiber. So you don't need to worry about cutting out nuts, seeds, and popcorn from your diet since it is unlikely they will irritate your bowels.

How Should You Change Your Diet?

A 2018 study published in the journal Gut, involved the health and diet information from roughly 46,000 people over 26 years. The people who consumed the most red meat per week (especially unprocessed red meat, like steak) had a 58% greater risk of developing diverticulitis compared to those that ate the least amount of red meat each week. A person's risk of diverticulitis rose 18% per serving of red meat consumed per day.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study, in Gastroenterology, examined overall dietary patterns, rather than individual foods. A typical Western diet (red meat, refined grains, high-fat dairy) was associated with an increased risk of diverticulitis. While a "prudent pattern" was tied to a decreased risk. "The prudent pattern, which is high in fruits and vegetables, low in meat, low in processed foods, low in sweets, low in fat, is beneficial," said Lisa Strate, MD, the study's lead author and professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

So, if you have diverticulitis, it may be a good idea to limit your intake of red meat, processed foods, and sweets, and increase your intake of fruits and vegetables.

Summary

The take-home message? It may not be a single food, necessarily, that makes or breaks your risk of diverticulitis. But eating a healthy, high-fiber diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may be a good idea to prevent future flare-ups.

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