What to eat (and avoid) when you have diverticulitis
If you’re age 60 years or above, it’s possible that you’ve developed small pockets — called diverticula — in the lining of your large intestine. This is known as diverticulosis.
Usually, these pockets don’t cause any problems. But when these pouches become inflamed or infected, it can be serious. This is a condition called diverticulitis.
Symptoms of diverticulitis include stomach pain, nausea, and fever. You may need antibiotics or even surgery to treat it.
Diet plays a role in the development of diverticulitis. It can also help you manage the condition.
What is diverticulitis?
Diverticula are small pockets that usually form at weak points in your colon due to pressure in the large intestine. This is called diverticulosis. It becomes more common with age as your intestines become weaker. Around 70% of people over the age of 80 have diverticulosis, but it doesn’t usually cause any symptoms.
Diverticulitis is the term for when the diverticula become inflamed, causing symptoms like:
- pain and bloating
- diarrhea or constipation
There are various reasons diverticulosis might develop into diverticulitis, including certain medications you may take. However, research shows that the amount of fiber in your diet — particularly a high fiber diet — can protect against developing diverticulitis.
What to eat during a diverticulitis flare-up
If you have had an active diverticulitis flare-up in the past, doctors may have advised eating foods that are easier to digest — particularly low fiber options and avoiding foods like nuts, corn, and seeds. But now, research finds that these foods don’t worsen symptoms, so you don’t need to avoid anything particular.
However, you know your symptoms best. If you find a certain food, particularly high fat, high fiber foods, worsens your symptoms, you can avoid it until you feel better.
At the start of a flare-up, when symptoms are most severe, doctors generally recommend sticking to clear liquids until they improve.
Clear liquid options include:
- plain water or water with honey
- electrolyte drinks
- flavored water
- ice pops without fruit chunks or pulp
- broths, such as chicken, beef, vegetable or bone broth
- clear protein drinks
- herbal teas or coffee without cream
- no-pulp juices, such as apple or cranberry
What to eat while you heal from diverticulitis
When you feel you can eat solid foods again, you may want to go easy on fiber-rich options to begin with. Easy-to-digest foods can help you continue to heal. You can then slowly build up your fiber intake.
Here are some of the best low fiber foods to eat after a diverticulitis flare-up.
Once the inflammation subsides and your symptoms begin to improve, grab some crackers. This will help you slowly build up to a low fiber diet.
If you’d like a change from crackers, you can also prepare some rice. But be sure to avoid brown rice for now — white rice is easier to digest and low in dietary fiber.
Craving something sweet? Applesauce or canned or cooked fruits without the skin or seeds are great options. After a flare-up, it may be more difficult to digest fresh fruits, particularly higher-fiber fruits like berries.
Not only a good source of calcium, plain yogurt is also easy to digest. A yogurt with live active cultures will contain good bacteria, which helps balance your gut microbiome, the name for the chemicals and bacteria in your digestive system.
Try to stick to nonfat or low fat yogurt at this time to help with digestion.
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After diverticulitis flares, you can eat white pasta, which is easy to digest and low in fiber.
Low fiber cereal
Although nutritious, try to steer clear of bran and granola-like cereals for now. Instead, go for processed picks like cornflakes and puffed rice while you heal.
If you were sticking to a clear liquid diet during a flare-up, your diet likely lacked protein during this time. Eggs are protein-rich and easy to digest. And they won’t irritate your diverticula.
Once your recovery is further along, you can start to work more fat into your diet. Avocados are a standout choice. Avocados contain healthy fats, which promote overall health.
These fats support heart health and can even help your body absorb vitamins from other foods. Avocados also contain small amounts of fiber, a perfect amount during this stage.
High fiber foods
Once the flare-up resolves, you’ll want to slowly increase your fiber intake. A high fiber diet helps build healthy bacteria in the gut and promotes softer stools that pass more easily, meaning the diverticula are less likely to become inflamed.
So what exactly is a high fiber diet? It’s an overall healthy eating pattern rich in:
- whole fruits like pears, berries, and bananas
- vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, and squash
- beans and lentils like black beans, kidney beans, and split peas
- whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, and whole wheat breads and pasta
But it’s important not to ramp up your fiber intake all at once. Instead, increase it over a few weeks and drink plenty of water. This way will give your body time to adjust.
Before you know it, you’ll be packing your plate with plant-forward dishes and doing so much good for your gut and overall health.
Medications to treat diverticulitis
While eating the right foods is important for treating diverticulitis, you might also need medications. Oral antibiotics, either on their own or in combination, are the most common treatment method.
Examples include ciprofloxacin (Cipro) or sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim (Bactrim) combined with metronidazole (Flagyl) or clindamycin (Cleocin), or a doctor might prescribe amoxicillin-clavulanate (Augmentin) on its own.
You might also get a prescription for drugs that target inflammation, such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen (Aleve).
If you have abdominal pain and think you might have diverticulitis, reach out to a doctor. They can refer you to a gastroenterologist.
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Diverticulitis can cause symptoms like pain and bloating. Research shows that while your risk of developing it increases with age, eating a high fiber diet can help prevent it.
If you have diverticulitis and experience a flare-up, you might want to eat low fiber, easy-to-digest foods while you recover. Options include plain crackers and white pasta. You can then slowly start to increase your fiber intake, introducing small portions of whole fruits like apples and whole wheat breads and pasta.
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- Cronin P, et al. (2021). Dietary fiber modulates the gut microbiota. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8153313/
- DASH eating plan. (2021). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/education/dash-eating-plan
- Diverticular disease. (n.d.). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diverticulosis-diverticulitis
- Fernandez MA, et al. (2017). Potential health benefits of combining yogurt and fruits based on their probiotic and prebiotic properties. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5227968/
- Feuerstein JD, et al. (2016). Diverticulosis and diverticulitis. https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(16)30067-2/pdf
- Ma W, et al. (2019). Intake of dietary fiber fruits, and vegetables, and risk of diverticulitis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6731157/
- Pacheco LS, et al. (2022). Avocado consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease in US adults. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.121.024014
- Peery AF, et al. (2021). AGA clinical practice update on medical management of colonic diverticulitis: Expert review. https://www.gastrojournal.org/article/S0016-5085(20)35512-8/pdf