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 has become infected or inflamed, according to the National Library of Medicine

Diverticulitis may be a result of a low-fiber diet. When a person eats a diet low in fiber, the result is typically constipation which can irritate the bowels. That 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 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, RDN, 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 develop these little pouches, the chances of becoming inflamed or infected are also reduced.

Fiber is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, and vegetables. 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. That reduces the risk of constipation, reducing 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 forming along the colon wall, leading to diverticulitis. However, Harvard Health reported no real evidence to support this theory.

Quite the opposite is true, actually. Nuts and seeds are sources of fiber—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 examined health and diet information from roughly 46,000 people over 26 years. The people who consumed the greatest quantity of red meat per week—especially unprocessed red meat, like steak—had a 58% greater risk of developing diverticulitis than those who ate the least red meat each week. A person's risk of diverticulitis rose by 18% per serving of red meat consumed daily.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study printed in Gastroenterology examined overall dietary patterns rather than individual foods. A typical Western diet—red meat, refined grains, and high-fat dairy—was associated with an increased risk of diverticulitis. While a "prudent pattern" diet was tied to a decreased risk. 

"The prudent pattern diet, 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.

A Quick Review

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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