Nutrition and IBD. Just saying those two words together makes me feel like I’m running through a rabbit hole, unsure where to turn….and I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 14 years. Everywhere you look, you see people claiming to “heal their gut” through diet alone, while sharing diet hacks that “cure” IBD, when in fact there is no cure.
Unfortunately, my first experience with a dietitian, days after my diagnosis, was not a positive one. She came into my hospital room and was very doomsday and black and white about what my future held. The conversation led me to believe I would never eat raw fruit or veggies, salads were out, and fried foods were always a no-no. I was told I could have white bread, white pasta, cooked veggies, and plain chicken from that day forward. Hearing this made grappling with the diagnosis much more difficult.
My experience is hopefully not a typical one for those in the IBD community. Dietitians can be and are key players in our overall care teams. They help guide our nutrition and lead us on a path to better health. Chances are if you or someone you love has IBD you’ve come across the laundry list of IBD-friendly diets (SCD, anti-inflammatory, paleo, etc.). If you’ve found a diet that works for you, that’s great—but it can be extremely dangerous and damaging to use your own personal experience to sway others, especially if you preach to go off all medication and focus on diet alone.
Just as IBD manifests uniquely in every person, trigger foods vary, too. This week—I interview Therezia AlChoufete, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) who specializes in Gastrointestinal Diseases, to set the record straight about this area of disease management. Therezia completed her Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and her Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Pittsburgh.
NH: What role does diet/nutrition play in treating IBD?
TA: “A huge role – symptom management is very helpful to improve quality of life for patients with IBD, and many patients have difficulty understanding what they should or should not eat. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help to identify trigger foods and other factors that may be affecting digestion & GI symptoms, nutrition for ostomy management, modifications to diet before and after surgery, recipe modifications to improve GI tolerance, and much more depending on each patient’s medical history.”
NH: When you’re given a patient with IBD, what type of information do you share in those appointments?
TA: “I see my patients in an outpatient setting – this allows me to review the patient’s goals, assess their nutrition status, and determine an individualized plan with every patient. Information can vary depending on each patient’s unique history, goals, and food tolerance.”
NH: Each person’s body responds differently to specific foods, everyone has different triggers, how do you create a plan that is tailored to everyone, rather than saying “all people with IBD need to stay away from XX”?
TA: “There is definitely no one-diet-fits-all approach for IBD. I typically review the patient’s food history, their unique food tolerances, and provide a plan according to each person’s goals and disease status. I try my best to avoid food restriction and liberalize the diet as tolerated by each patient.”
NH: What are the most common questions and concerns you hear from patients?
TA: “A very common question is what food/supplements can I eat to fix my symptoms – unfortunately, there is not a simple answer. But this leaves us some room to discuss food triggers in more detail and review ways to achieve a well-balanced diet.”
NH: Why is working with a nutritionist so critical for those with IBD?
TA: “Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are food and nutrition experts. We use science-based evidence to provide recommendations that are specific to each person’s medical history. This may include review of micronutrient deficiencies, hydration status, fluid build-up (sometimes following use of steroids), medication side effects, risks of malnutrition (which can occur in all body sizes), supplement questions, and so much more. An RDN can provide individualized medical nutrition therapy to minimize GI symptoms and optimize gut health in conjunction with medical plans provided by gastroenterologists.”
NH: What type of difference do you hope to make in a person’s patient journey?
TA: “My hope is to help patients liberalize their diet and improve their quality of life. It is very important to me to help patients realize that they have a team of professionals that can help them manage their IBD. I enjoy working with a team of clinicians to target medical, behavioral, and nutritional health concerns to optimize care for each individual.”
NH: What advice do you have for patients who are in the middle of a flare up?
TA: “Communication with your Gastroenterologist is very important if you feel like you are having flare-like symptoms in order to receive proper treatment. Sometimes, foods that are typically tolerated during times of remission are not tolerated during a flare, and an RDN can help you determine a softer diet that is easier to digest based on your individual needs.”
NH: The term “healing the gut with food” is commonly heard within the IBD community. What’s your belief on that vs. using diet as a combination therapy with medication?
TA: “Unfortunately, diet cannot cure IBD. It can improve some symptoms, but it is so important to work with your doctor to receive proper medical treatment for the disease, follow up with a dietitian to optimize your diet, and address any behavioral health management with your therapist or psychiatrist.”
Connect with Therezia here:
Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation: https://www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/diet-and-nutrition
International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: https://www.iffgd.org/other-disorders/inflammatory-bowel-disease.html
United Ostomy Associations of America: https://www.iffgd.org/other-disorders/inflammatory-bowel-disease.html