By Nour Zibdeh, MS, RD, CLT
Crohn’s disease is a condition defined by chronic inflammation and irritation of the digestive tract, and, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), an estimated 700,000 Americans suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There is no known cause, but the condition is known to run in families. In addition, one’s immune system and environment appear to play a role in the development of Crohn’s.
What Happens with Crohn’s Disease?
The exact process that causes the inflammation and irritation is unknown, but there has been some insight into the disease. Crohn’s disease often affects the lower part of the small intestine, but can manifest anywhere from the mouth to the anus. The immune system also plays a role in this condition.
Immune cells accumulate in the intestines, attacking bacteria, food, healthy body tissue and other harmless or even beneficial substances, causing symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss, fever and fatigue. These accumulating immune cells produce chemicals that promote inflammation, damage intestinal walls and cause the symptoms of Crohn’s.
How Is Diet Involved?
Foods do not cause Crohn’s disease and no special diet has been proven effective. However, certain foods may cause flare-ups in Crohn’s disease symptoms. Some common symptom-provoking foods are dairy, high fiber grains, alcohol and hot spices.
Research has been unsuccessful at determining what specific foods are the culprit for everyone with this condition. Bottom line: there’s no one diet to alleviate Crohn’s disease. Yet, important steps in treatment for Crohn’s include keeping a detailed food diary, avoiding foods that cause symptoms and consulting with a registered dietitian experienced in digestive health.
Nutrient deficiency is another common concern since inflammation from this condition interferes with nutrient absorption. As a result, people with Crohn’s disease need a nutrient-rich diet with adequate calories, protein and healthy fats.
Steroid medications often prescribed for Crohn’s disease can increase osteoporosis risk, so sufficient calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin K are needed for bone health. Long-term steroid use can also cause deficiencies in vitamin C, vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc and selenium.
Healthy Eating Tips
If you have Crohn’s disease, consult with a registered dietitian who can work with you to develop a personalized eating plan.
Some tips and guidelines:
- Eat small meals or snack every 3 to 4 hours. Stay hydrated. Drink small amounts of water throughout the day.
- During periods when you don’t have symptoms, include whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables in your eating plan. Start new foods one at a time, in small amounts.
- When you have symptoms, such as diarrhea or abdominal pain, follow the recommended food list provided by your registered dietitian. Foods to avoid may include high fiber foods, raw and gas-producing vegetables, most raw fruits and beverages with caffeine.
Your physician and registered dietitian may recommend foods with added probiotics and prebiotics, as well as dietary supplements such as iron, calcium, vitamin D, folate, zinc and vitamin B12 to prevent or treat deficiencies.
Reviewed July 2013
Nour Zibdeh, MS, RD, CLT, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Northern Virginia. She specializes in digestive wellness, food sensitivities, weight management, heart disease, diabetes, migraines and fibromyalgia.