The bland diet is a loosely defined collection of diet restrictions that may be prescribed following gastrointestinal surgery or as management for gastric distress (e.g. nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea). When thinking about bland foods, it’s hard not to conjure up mental images of boiled chicken breasts and olive-colored string beans on hospital trays, but you can actually eat so much more. You just need to be informed about what you can and cannot eat plus how you can tweak ingredients to make them work.
The point of a bland diet is to decrease irritation to the gastrointestinal tract. A few foods and food categories are thought to exacerbate digestive issues. These include:
Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains:
Most of us are encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds in order to keep bowel movements regular, moderate appetite, and to fight off disease – which is normally great advice – but when dealing with gastrointestinal issues, many of these high fiber foods can cause distress. Thankfully, with some modification, variations of most of these foods are acceptable on a bland diet. Many of these healthy foods contain both insoluble and soluble fibers, and while a person wants to limit their intake of soluble fiber, it is also possible to modify foods to limit their insoluble fiber content.
Cooking fruits, steaming vegetables, plus removing seeds and skins to decrease insoluble fiber content are all things you can do to still enjoy your favorite fruits and veggies. Consuming small amounts of nut butters, and well-cooked or refined grains (e.g. oats, white rice, farina, crackers, etc.) is also acceptable. Avoid beans, cruciferous vegetables (i.e. broccoli, cabbage, etc.), raw fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, and high fiber grain products, such as whole wheat breads and high-fiber cereals.
Whether it’s wine, beer, or hard alcohol, none of these are appropriate for someone on a bland diet, as they can irritate the intestines and also cause acid reflux. Drink hydrating beverages such as water, which can be made a bit more festive with mint sprigs or slices of cucumber, apples, and other fresh fruit.
Caffeine is a gastric stimulant, so while on a bland diet, avoid coffee (including decaf – see “acid”), caffeine-containing teas, energy drinks, and dark chocolate. Herbal teas, such as chamomile and rooibos are great alternatives.
Eating foods with high acid content can exacerbate digestive issues. Limit citrus, vinegar, chocolate, tomatoes, coffee, carbonated beverages, and other high acid foods. **Depending on how seriously you need to follow the bland diet, i.e. how severe your digestive issues are, you can incorporate some acids in cooking to improve flavors.
Foods that are very high in fat – particularly those that are oily, greasy, or deep-fried – require an increase in digestive acids for their breakdown and absorption, and this can be irritating to the gastrointestinal tract. Additionally, excess fat can stimulate intestinal contractions and worsen digestive issues. Interestingly, a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which is found naturally in coconut oil, is easier to digest than other fats. Pure coconut milk makes a great base for smoothies, can be whipped into a creamy dessert, or can be used in cooking as a substitute for dairy milk.
Milk and Milk Products:
As we enter adulthood, some people lose the ability to fully digest the sugar in milk known as lactose. This can cause, bloating, gas, and general abdominal discomfort after eating lactose-rich foods like milk and ice cream. Other people may develop a temporary intolerance to lactose following intestinal surgery or extended periods of diarrhea. When prescribed a bland diet, it’s smart to air on the side of caution and avoid incorporating much lactose, at least initially. Low-fat yogurt and low-fat cheese are some of the better-tolerated milk products, due to their lower lactose content. Gradually experiment with other low-fat milk products, incorporating small amounts of dairy to measure your tolerance. Coconut and soymilk can be great substitutes for cow’s milk.
Sugars and Sugar Alcohols:
Similar to lactose, some sugars and sugar alcohols can be difficult to absorb, which can cause diarrhea and exacerbate intestinal issues. Stay away from prune and apple juice, which contain high quantities of fructose. Be moderate when incorporating high sources of sugar such as dried and whole fruit into the bland diet. Read ingredient lists carefully, and avoid sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and sorbitol, which are often found in low-sugar or “diet” products.
Any hot or spicy foods can be particularly irritating to the intestinal tract. Stay away from hot peppers, raw garlic, mustard, and other intense flavors. Instead, use soothing spices, such as rosemary, oregano, thyme, ginger, and cinnamon.
Despite this long list of “no-nos”, we hope that we have helped you figure out what you can eat by highlighting a few of the best foods to consume while on a bland diet. Instead of focusing on your restrictions, think of this time as a phase of healing your gut. Experiment with new soothing recipes.
Try cooking rice with some of the water replaced by coconut milk. Roast peaches, and serve them with cinnamon and a dollop of low-fat Greek yogurt. Cook fish “en papillote” with rosemary, thyme, potatoes, and carrots.
Make savory oatmeal, topped with a poached egg. Most importantly, be intuitive about which foods may be particularly irritating to you and nourish yourself in the way that you would care for someone you love.