Now my friends the goal of this article is not to scare you. Instead, we want to have an open conversation about how powerful language is and how labelling foods in a certain way can create food fear. That’s why our team believes that calling high FODMAP foods ‘unsafe’ is bad for your health. Let us explain.
How words create negative food associations
When you think of ‘unsafe,’ what do you think of? Life-threatening allergic reactions? Toxic chemical products? Someone hurting you? Food that has gone bad?
When you think of these things, your body associates the word ‘unsafe’ with something that causes physical harm, and your brain creates a fear-based response that alters your behaviour to protect yourself. For example, if you know a cleaning product is toxic if touched, then you automatically change your behaviour to make sure you wear gloves when you are using it.
While fear-based responses are super useful in many situations, they can become problematic when they are triggered by foods that can be good for our health.
What’s more, food fear can be harmful to one’s mental health leading to unhealthy eating patterns or in extreme cases even disordered eating behaviours. It is difficult enough to maintain a healthy relationship with food when certain foods trigger gut symptoms. Using curiosity instead of judgment around food, even when it comes to intolerances, can reduce stress, preserve your relationship with food and make it all easier to manage in the long run.
So, are high FODMAP foods unsafe?
The short answer is no – they aren’t. Not only are they in lots of healthy fruits and veggies, but high FODMAP foods themselves can actually be healthy for our bodies. High FODMAP foods often act as prebiotics, which means they provide important food for our healthy gut bacteria (1). They can nourish our gut health, boost our nutrition, and provide variety in our diets.
The flip side of this is that high FODMAP foods can be involved in gas production in the gut and this gas may not be tolerated well by people with certain medical conditions (2). What this means is that if you have gut issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), some high FODMAP foods might trigger gut symptoms for you.
We know that these gut symptoms can be unpleasant, painful and make you feel horrid, and we aren’t trying to downplay these symptoms. However, it’s important to point out that high FODMAP foods don’t physically harm your body. Instead, high FODMAP foods can trigger symptoms when the bacteria in your gut break the FODMAPs down through fermentation (2). This process can draw water into the gut, create gas, and cause distension, and all this can lead to cramps, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and constipation (2).
So the take home message here is that high FODMAP foods aren’t unsafe, but they can trigger unpleasant gut-based symptoms for some people.
How To Break The Fear Loop
If you are in the habit of calling high FODMAP foods unsafe, then you might be stuck in a food fear loop. This is where you become scared of eating high FODMAP foods, and this makes it very hard to reintroduce to high FODMAP foods and bring them back into your diet.
The first step to breaking this fear loop is to remember that most people only react to a couple of the FODMAP groups. This means there should be high FODMAP foods that you can tolerate with minimal symptoms and bring back into your diet after the first phase. Also keep in mind that if you do react to a high FODMAP food, the symptoms should pass over a few days as the food moves out of your digestive system. While this may be uncomfortable, it is not dangerous.
The second thing to think about is that your tolerance levels to different foods can change over time. So even if you reacted to a FODMAP group or food in the past, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to bring it back in the future.
The next step is to change the language you use around food.
Creating Positive Language Around High FODMAP Foods
The mind is a powerful tool! We need to create a different type of thinking about high FODMAP foods instead of using the words ‘bad’ or ‘unsafe’. When thinking about the low FODMAP diet and high FODMAP foods, try using these phrases:
“I’m having a break from these high FODMAP foods at the moment while I figure out my food triggers and what’s right for my gut.”
“This product looks low FODMAP by ingredient, so I’m going to try it.”
“In the ingredient list I can see [insert high FODMAP ingredient, e.g. inulin]; this means I’ll wait to try it after the reintroduction phase when I know more about how my body responds to different FODMAP groups.”
“The low FODMAP serving size of this product is 40g. It becomes high FODMAP at higher serving sizes so I’m going to focus on enjoying the low FODMAP serving size.”
“I don’t think I tolerate this food well right now, but I can always try it again in a few months and see if my body’s response has changed.”
“I am choosing not to eat this food right now, in order for my body to feel more comfortable later”
In these phrases we keep the language open and neutral. We don’t say we are removing foods forever or suggest that they might be harmful. Instead, we are making it about a choice we are making without judgement. By doing this, we can prepare our minds to try these foods again at a later date. This makes the first phase of the low FODMAP diet less stressful and makes it easier to move forward into the reintroduction phase and expand your diet.
Is it ever appropriate to call a food unsafe?
In some cases, yes. For people with food allergies or coeliac disease, certain foods are unsafe and must be avoided as they do physical harm. If you have one of these conditions, then you can use the word ‘unsafe’ for the allergens you react to. Just make sure you don’t transfer that language across to high FODMAP foods if you are using the low FODMAP diet to manage other medical conditions.
Remember that labelling high FODMAP foods ‘unsafe’ can be harmful to your health since it creates a food fear cycle. We want to challenge you to change the language you use when thinking about high FODMAP foods and make sure you reassure your brain that it’s okay to try high FODMAP foods again in the future. We wish you all the best for your FODMAP reintroductions.
1. Dwyer E. Dietary fibre series – prebiotic fibre. Monash FODMAP. November, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.monashfodmap.com/blog/dietary-fibre-series-prebiotic-fibre/
2. Monash FODMAP. How do FODMAPs trigger symptoms? Monash FODMAP. 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.monashfodmap.com/blog/the-fodmap-grand-tour-down-under-ibs/
Special thanks to Rose Caitlin and Joanna Baker for their support while creating this article.