How to deal with the frustration of eating for IBS

If you’ve ever felt confused, frustrated, unhappy and stressed by eating for IBS and having to change your diet, this blog post is for you. I’ve addressed it to Brie, who left the following comment on one of my other blog posts, but I think the challenges she mentions are the same ones lots and lots of people with IBS have to deal with. After you read this, please leave your comments and let me know how this information relates to your situation. But first, here’s her story…

“Hi, I am a 17 year old girl that has recently been diagnosed with IBS. It has been extremely hard for me to keep up and remember all the foods I should and should not eat. I guess the most difficult part is realizing I am not able to enjoy a lot of the foods I once used too. (milk products, bread, chocolate, caffeine, sugary foods, fatty foods and red meats.) I find it rather depressing and for the past couple months ive been overwhelmed (also increased bad anxiety) with the news. I was poorly informed about how to deal with this by my doctor (which makes me rather irritated) that as a stress reliever ive been eating alot more. And generally foods that are restricted from an “IBS diet.” I’ve been trying to improve my overall health and fitness but it’s rather hard to pursue with this illness. It feels like im making no improvements. Any suggestions to get out of this constant cycle of no goodness and finally feel better?”

Hi Brie,

YES, I definitely have some suggestions!

Changing your diet because of IBS is one of the most challenging aspects of this condition (and, as you know, there are quite a few challenging aspects!) It can be a real shock to find out that you are not supposed to eat foods that you’ve always enjoyed just because of this thing called IBS. In fact, you might even feel like you’re being punished – both by the hassle of having IBS and then by being deprived of some of your favourite foods – even though you haven’t done anything wrong…

And food is such an emotional subject. It’s deeply associated with emotion, pleasure, birthdays and holidays, connecting with friends and family, even belonging to a certain group of people.

It can also be strongly associated with stress, as in, “I should eat this apple because it’s good for me…” and “I’m NOT supposed to eat that chocolate because it’s bad for me.” (Those are definitely not statements that make you feel relaxed, especially if eating for IBS already feels stressful!)

I don’t know about you, but as soon as someone tries to impose limits on me, I rebel, even if I’m the one who’s imposing the limits! So I can totally understand about eating restricted foods to relieve stress.

On top of that, being 17 has its challenges. This is a pivotal time in life: you’re moving into adulthood and you have to deal with school, relationships, parents, work, your future, and making important decisions – sometimes with limited information. Adding IBS to all of this is very stressful.

So it’s no wonder you feel overwhelmed and depressed!

What are my suggestions?

1) First of all, don’t try to change everything in your diet at once.

You’re making lifestyle changes here and it’s HARD! You’re right – there IS a lot to remember when you’re changing your diet. But you’re going to be alive for quite a few more years, so you have some time to get your food sorted out.

What I would do is pick one or two things to change in your diet right now and just do that for a few weeks. I would probably pick getting dairy products and deep-fried fats out of my diet since they cause more digestive problems than almost anything else. Once you’ve got that figured out, you can pick something else to improve.

Also, if you’re finding eating for IBS really challenging, try reducing your anxiety and stress levels FIRST before you change anything about your food. I’ll tell you how to do that in point #3 below. And in point #4, I’ll talk about dealing with overwhelm.

2) Cheat intelligently.

I have to admit, when I found out I was reacting to all kinds of foods I loved (or was addicted to) I had a lot of trouble with changing my eating for many years (but eventually it worked and now I can’t imagine eating something that makes me feel yucky because I love feeling good all the time.)

So what did I do for all those years? I cheated.

But I made certain choices. Instead of eating the kind of chocolate bars you can buy at any store (which had a really bad effect on me), I bought organic cocoa powder and made myself some fudge with cocoa powder, tahini and honey. I also made hot chocolate with rice or almond milk and honey. Is it more hassle than grabbing a regular chocolate bar? Yeah, at first. But I got to eat chocolate without all the cramps that ordinary chocolate gave me so I just got used to making my own.

There are a lot more products available today that have cleaner ingredients than a few years ago when I started doing all this. So check out the health food section and read the ingredients on the product labels. (And if you’re getting the dairy out of your diet, watch out for milk chocolate.)

You can buy treats that are sweetened with fruit juice or stevia. Just watch out for cane-juice sweeteners, Sucanat, corn sweetener, malted sweeteners, and that kind of thing because, like white and brown sugar, they are hard on your body. (Let me know if you want to know why. The explanation is pretty long, but if you knew everything sugar does to your body, emotions, and brain, you’d wonder how it could possibly be legal for daily use!)

Here’s another thought. I spent many years working with people who had food and chemical sensitivities and one thing I found over and over again was that people often reacted to the commercially-grown version of a food, but NOT to the organically-grown version. Translation: they could drink organic coffee without a problem, but had a terrible time with regular coffee (which is heavily pesticided) and decaf (which is chemically processed.) And I’ve yet to see a client with bowel problems who didn’t react badly to chemicals. So if you’re going to cheat, buy the cleanest version of your cheat food you can find.

That being said, do watch out for the foods that typically cause the biggest problems when you’re eating for IBS, Crohn’s or Colitis, like dairy, high-fat foods, and gas-causing foods like legumes and cruciferous veg. Maybe I should also mention that, in North America, we eat a lot of crappy processed food, then wonder why our bodies can’t handle it and have digestive problems. I don’t want to get into a big lecture about food quality, but the reality is – your food becomes your cells, so the better it is (fresh, whole, unprocessed, organic), the fewer health problems you’re going to have over your lifetime and the better you’re going to feel mentally and emotionally. 

3) De-stress and boost your emotions with EFT tapping.

When I had to change my diet, I didn’t have EFT tapping to help me, so I had to go through all the emotions of revising my eating habits cold turkey and it was rough. I often found myself going backwards and forwards between wanting to be healthier and craving certain foods even though I knew they were making me feel worse.

After I discovered EFT, it was really easy to make food changes. Why? Because the tapping does a fantastic job of relieving anxiety and stress. So instead of using food to calm myself down, I used tapping.

In fact, after I had spent some time tapping on the things that upset me, I lost my food cravings, spontaneously stopped eating chocolate without even trying (and never quite got interested in it again), and lost all my feelings of deprivation. I know that sounds miraculous, but it didn’t happen in one day. It happened after a few weeks, which seemed miraculous to me, after struggling with some of this stuff for YEARS. I also found that I stopped getting depressed and if I became anxious, I could deal with it in a matter of minutes or even seconds with the tapping.

You can also tap on all the emotions that come up when you feel deprived at the thought of having to give up something you like. Once you tap away the intensity of those emotions, you might find out that the food itself isn’t really that important to you. Maybe what you really want is some reassurance when you’re feeling scared, or some understanding when you’re confused about a situation. Then you can tap on those emotions – of fear or confusion – and reduce their intensity as well. Once your emotions are calm, it’s a lot easier to handle eating for IBS. It’s also easier to get on with life and do what you need to do. And even start enjoying yourself!

I think EFT tapping is one of the best tools you can use to end the cycle of “no goodness” and to help you feel better.

If you want to learn EFT tapping, there are videos on different pages of this site that demonstrate how to do it. Here’s one that shows you how to tap for anxiety. There’s also the No IBS Program that Kathy and I put together – it shows you exactly how to tap for IBS and walks you through what to tap on so you can get rid of all that anxiety and stress that triggers IBS symptoms and feel a LOT better. (It also walks you through what to eat and how to clear out chemicals to avoid pain and suffering so you can feel better and enjoy your life more.) It’s a big time-saver because it’s like we’re right there coaching you instead of you having to figure it all out for yourself. You can check it out by going to the Products page.

4) How to deal with overwhelm.

This is a complex subject, so bear with me here.

First of all, overwhelm feels uncomfortable, so as you mentioned, the need to relieve the stress of it is very strong – to the point that you’re reaching for foods that are not on the “recommended” list when you’re eating for IBS. Some other responses to overwhelm that people have are: drinking, taking drugs, shutting down and avoiding life, watching excessive TV, endless shopping, etc.

But why is it so uncomfortable to feel overwhelmed? It’s because your whole life has been thrown into chaos by the need to change. You may not WANT to change, but because you’ve been handed the diagnosis of IBS, you are facing some major changes in your life and you can’t get away from that. Being in chaos is awkward and scary because what used to work doesn’t work any more and you haven’t had time to integrate a new way of living (or a new level of functioning) yet.

The problem with most self-medicating approaches to overwhelm like eating, alcohol, shopping, etc, is that they don’t actually work – they provide a distraction from the overwhelm, but they do nothing to change it. And they may actually delay or prevent you from moving to your new level of functioning. This can be quite frustrating.

If all that sounds too theoretical, here are some suggestions for when you feel overwhelmed:

a) Remind yourself that this is a temporary feeling. When you’re in overwhelm, it feels like there’s way too much to cope with and that it will last forever. That’s not true. It won’t.

b) Notice if you’re thinking the words “always” and “never” a lot. Like, “I’m always going to feel this bad.” Or “I’m never going to be able to cope with this.” These words tell you that you’re scaring yourself with thoughts that are going to make you feel overwhelmed, if you’re not already feeling it. The only thing that always happens is change. That is the one thing that never changes. So you, your feelings, and your situation will change too.

When you find you’re doing the “always/never” thing a lot, don’t bother judging yourself, just think, “Oops, I’m doing it again. But I don’t have to scare myself with these thoughts because they’re JUST THOUGHTS. They’re not really real.” Then, tell yourself something reassuring like, “I WILL get through this. I CAN handle it.”

c) Consider joining an IBS support group online or offline, so you can talk to other people who share your challenges and have found ways to reduce their own overwhelm around eating for IBS and dealing with different aspects of this digestive condition. (BTW, people who’ve gone through the No IBS Program have told Kathy and me that it greatly reduces their overwhelm and stress, so that’s another option.)

d) Do some EFT tapping to get your anxiety and overwhelm levels down and help yourself feel better. (See point #3.) Watch one of our videos to learn the tapping technique, then substitute these words to deal with overwhelm:

Set up (tap on side of hand):
Even though I feel overwhelmed, I choose to relax and feel calm
Even though I feel overwhelmed, I choose to relax and feel calm
Even though I feel overwhelmed, I choose to relax and feel calm

Reminder phrase (tap points on head and torso):
This overwhelm
I’m overwhelmed
This overwhelm
I feel overwhelmed
This overwhelm
I’m overwhelmed
This overwhelm
I choose to relax

e) Here’s a technique from the tradition of meditation. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, step back as if you were outside yourself and – without judgment – watch yourself being overwhelmed. “Oh, there she is, feeling overwhelmed again.” This is called being the Witness.

Notice where in your body you’re feeling the overwhelm. See if you’re saying anything to yourself or thinking any thoughts that contribute to feeling overwhelmed. Don’t judge them; just notice them. Believe it or not, when you watch yourself being overwhelmed – as if you were a compassionate outside witness – this will actually help you stop feeling overwhelmed. Notice your thoughts about having IBS and about eating for IBS and that when you keep thinking you’re overwhelmed, you actually feel MORE overwhelmed. (Again, tapping will help with this.) 

f) Give your brain a new direction to focus on.

If you ask, “Why am I feeling overwhelmed?” or “Why am I depressed?” or “Why is this happening to me?” your brain will obediently find reasons for you (because it’s a goal-seeking mechanism.) Instead, ask yourself, “What could I be thinking about (or what could I do) that would make me feel better?” When you do this, your brain starts looking for ways to help you feel better.

This is actually what you were doing in your email, when you asked for suggestions about getting out of the negative cycle.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Whatever you focus on expands.” It’s really important to stop every so often and actually notice what you’re thinking. When I first started doing this, I was amazed to find out how often my thoughts were critical of myself and others, angry, fearful, anxious, and despairing. I believed all these negative thoughts were just the way things were, until I learned that I could choose to focus my thoughts differently.

That’s right: thoughts are a choice, once you become conscious of them. So, if you’re feeling depressed, watch your thoughts and check if you are focussing on depressing thoughts. But cut yourself some slack. Changing your habitual thought patterns is an advanced skill, so don’t expect to make it happen overnight. Play with it. Step back as if you were standing outside yourself and just observe yourself thinking certain thoughts – WITHOUT judging yourself. “There she is, thinking that depressing thought.”

Some people think doing this is fake or it’s lying to themselves. It’s not, but it does feel awkward at first because you’re not used to it. These mental techniques are used by people to achieve success in many different fields: sports, business, the arts, etc, so you can apply them to improve your health and your emotional state as well.

g) You could also be feeling overwhelmed because your brain balance has been thrown off by certain foods or chemicals. The bowel and the brain are closely related, so if something bothers your digestion, you’re likely to notice it in your mental and emotional states as well. It’s not just people who are eating for IBS who experience this – millions of people are affected by food and chemical sensitivities, only they don’t realize it, so they can’t find a good solution. Kathy and I have spent over 20 years helping people deal with these reactions so they can feel better physically and emotionally. The bottom line is: your body is an integrated system and everything works together.

I hope that helps you, Brie, and anyone else who’s reading this. Let me know by leaving a comment below. And fill me in on your biggest challenges with IBS that weren’t addressed in this post.



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12 thoughts on “How to deal with the frustration of eating for IBS”

  1. Karen Limbaugh

    Hi, Karen!
    Thank you for this wonderful website! I took your advice and started eating soluble fiber prior to my meals or mixed with them. That has helped tremendously. I am, also, interested in EFT. I tried it a little and then stopped. I will get back to it. Last Wed., I ate a cinnamon bun and have suffered with diarrhea every day since. I usually avoid them like the plague but gave in to the temptation. Could I have gluten intolerance? I can’t seem to get my bowels back on track. I can’t eat any fiber. Vegetables go right through. Help!
    Thanks, Karen

  2. Karen of No IBS

    Hi Karen,
    I’m glad you’re finding the website helpful! Ah, cinnamon buns – haven’t had one of those in decades. Have you tried peeled apples slices sprinkled with organic cinnamon? According to Dr. James Braly, one out of three people is gluten-intolerant, so it’s a strong possibility. Food sensitivities are a common cause of diarrhea, as is stress. So you might want to tap on “Even though I ate the cinnamon bun and I’m paying for it now, I forgive myself and I choose to heal quickly.” Have you tried charcoal tablets to slow down the diarrhea? Adding some liquid minerals to your drinking water helps to restore lost electrolytes. You might need to eat a very boring diet for a few days – no fats, dairy or sugar, just soluble fiber foods like white rice, banana, maybe some sweet potato. Stay hydrated (water or herbal tea), and stay off wheat and cereal grain products if you suspect them – it takes several days for a food to clear your system.

  3. Hi Karen. Im 15 years old and I was diagnosed with IBS-C last year. Everyday Im in terrible abdominal pain and nausea, and it never goes away. They found out that Im wheat intolerent too. Whenever I eat almost anything now it just makes my symptoms worse. Any ideas of what might help to make my situation better?

  4. Hi Jamie,
    Ouch – you’re in a tough spot. But do NOT lose hope – there are things you can do to feel better. First, check out our blog post on relieving nausea and abdominal pain:, and get someone to do the technique in the video on you (or you can do it on yourself, but it’s a little easier if someone else does it.) Second, eat soluble fiber foods before you eat anything else (info is in our blog post on What to Eat with IBS.) Third, read the post on “Wheat’s Dirty Little Secret” (check the site map if you can’t find it.) Fourth – I don’t know if you realized that we have a program to help you self-heal from IBS, so if you want to get some serious help, go to the Products page and check it out. Fifth, if you don’t think you’re ready for the program, read through our posts and watch our videos, and use all the free material in them. Your body and brain know how to heal you, given the right circumstances.

  5. thanks for the advice, I wil definetly be using it. However, I do have another question. Ive been going to the psychiatrist and psychologist because they think my IBS has a lot to do with stress and anxiety, and they have been making me try a bunch of different anti-depressants, but everytime they only make me feel worse, and my mom says that I have to try a new one this week called prozac. Do you think that this will be helpful or should I try a different route, like your IBS program? Any advice that you have would be very helpful. thank you

  6. Interesting question, Jamie. I don’t know whether prozac will help you or not but here’s what I do know: In our IBS program, you do a lot of acupressure tapping (we totally teach you how to do it, so it’s easy). Tapping is considered one of the top natural methods for stress & anxiety relief in the world. I know it has helped me & my clients a HUGE amount. A lot of people have trouble with drugs because of side effects. There are no known side-effects of tapping. If you want to try the tapping on something that stresses you (for free), go to our blog post: How to Stop Stomach Cramps from Stress, scroll down to the video & try the tapping while you think of the thing that stresses you. Then see how you feel. But don’t combine every problem in your life – just pick one thing, like a test that’s coming up, or one incident when someone was mean to you. In a study comparing antidepressants & exercise, after 10 weeks, they had the same benefits. After 10 months, exercise came out ahead.

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