Low-FODMAP Diet vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

hands holding a bowl of low-fodmap food

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Diet plays a huge role in finding a solution for your digestive troubles, especially if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You may have considered an elimination diet to pinpoint which foods trigger your symptoms, or perhaps the microbiome diet to encourage good gut health.

The low-FODMAP diet is one of the top recommendations for people with IBS, but it can be difficult to decide on a diet to soothe your symptoms.

Though other digestion-friendly diets have their own benefits, the low-FODMAP program remains one of the most researched. It also has a success rate of up to 76% satisfaction. Though it’s not a long-term solution or miracle cure for all gastrointestinal disorders, it remains a highly regarded treatment for IBS.

While the low-FODMAP diet likely outshines other options for IBS patients, it’s still a restrictive diet. It’s not designed to be followed long-term because people on the diet may not meet their nutritional requirements per USDA guidelines.

USDA Recommendations

The low-FODMAP diet is stricter than USDA recommendations. Though it doesn’t have a caloric target, the diet isn’t as varied and limits dairy products.

Food Groups

The USDA outlines the five main food groups as follows:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Protein
  • Dairy

In each group, the USDA guidelines recommend that you consume a variety of foods. There are no fruits, vegetables, or grains that are off-limits. There are restrictions on animal products, however.

Fat-free or low-fat dairy products are recommended over full-fat. The latest USDA guidelines recommend that people, especially boys and men, switch to more plant-based proteins — such as beans, lentils, and peas — as meat consumption is higher than in previous years.

These recommendations in relation to food groups are slightly different than what’s compliant on the low-FODMAP diet. There are heavy restrictions on fruits, vegetables, and grains because these are foods high in carbohydrates. Since FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates, only certain fruits, vegetables, and grains are allowed during the elimination period.

Animal products are allowed on the low-FODMAP diet, however. It’s strongly recommended that users avoid all dairy products, but lactose-free dairy is permitted.
Since meat is free of carbohydrates, there are little to no restrictions on meat consumption on the low-FODMAP diet. Some researchers suggest avoiding processed meat or meat that may be breaded or seasoned with high-FODMAP foods.

Variety

USDA recommendations place a heavy emphasis on healthy eating patterns, which includes consuming a variety of foods.

While the low-FODMAP recommendations suggest consuming a variety of compliant foods, the overall nature of the diet is that it’s more restrictive than it is varied. There are dozens of compliant foods, but this pales in comparison to the variety encouraged by the USDA.

Though the low-FODMAP is naturally more restrictive, experts encourage followers to try new foods on the program. It’s also recommended to mix up your meals each week on the diet to ensure you’re getting vitamins and minerals from multiple types of food.

Nutrients

When following healthy eating patterns outlined by the USDA guidelines, you don’t need a health professional to ensure you’re meeting your micronutrient and macronutrient requirements. Your doctor may recommend regular blood tests to ensure you’re not deficient in any nutrients, though a varied diet encourages proper nutrition without the supervision of a dietician.

Meeting your nutrient requirements isn’t as simple on the low-FODMAP diet, which is the major reason why people are advised to follow the diet for only 2-6 weeks with the help of a professional. Since it’s mainly carbohydrates that are restricted, carbohydrate-based nutrients may be affected: folate, fiber, potassium and other vitamins and minerals.

Since dairy is restricted, people on the low-FODMAP diet are encouraged to find other sources of calcium and protein.

Calories

There is no recommended amount of calories to consume on the low-FODMAP diet. The founders of the diet at Monash University clarify that it’s not intended as a weight-loss diet. Rather, it’s a diagnostic program used to lessen digestive symptoms and identify food triggers.

However, maintaining a healthy weight is part of a balanced lifestyle. Many of the compliant foods on the low-FODMAP diet happen to be low-calorie, so you can follow the program while staying within your caloric target.

Similar Diets

The low-FODMAP diet and comparable diets share a common goal, which is to improve your digestion. In people with IBS, this is easier said than done. According to Monash University, one out of seven people are affected by IBS symptoms, such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, distension, constipation, and diarrhea. That’s approximately 15% of the world’s population. 

Though it’s the go-to treatment for IBS, the low-FODMAP diet isn’t your only option. To help make your decision on which diet is right for you, here’s how the low-FODMAP diet compares to other digestion-friendly programs.

Elimination Diet

The low-FODMAP diet is often confused with the elimination diet. Both diets are similar, but there are subtle differences.

Like the low-FODMAP diet, the elimination diet is a diagnostic tool. Followers temporarily remove certain foods, then reintroduce them individually to identify foods that cause unwanted symptoms.

Some non-compliant foods on the elimination diet are compliant on the low-FODMAP diet, and vice versa. For example, the elimination diet is free of soy, wheat, nuts, eggs, caffeine, sugar, and alcohol; however, these foods are allowed on the low-FODMAP diet because they’re not inherently high in FODMAPs.

Overall, both diets are strict and meant to be followed for a short period of time to unveil dietary triggers. The elimination diet typically lasts for 5-6 weeks, though the low-FODMAP diet may be followed for as little as 2 weeks.

Microbiome Diet

There’s an entire ecosystem of microorganisms living in your digestive tract. It’s known as your microbiome, and there’s a diet specifically designed to encourage microbiome health.
The microbiome diet was founded by Dr. Raphael Kellman, who believes a healthy gut can help in other areas of life, such as weight loss. The program is divided into three phrases, which are similar to the three parts of the low-FODMAP diet. 

  • Phase 1: “Gut-damaging” foods are removed for 21 days. Followers avoid a long list of foods, including soy, dairy, grains, legumes, starches, eggs, sugar, and packaged foods. Instead, prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods are encouraged.
  • Phase 2: For an additional 21 days, your diet is mostly restricted. However, 3-4 times per week you can reintroduce the restricted foods.
  • Phase 3: Maintenance mode is initiated. By this point, food triggers should be apparent. Dr. Kellman recommends avoiding certain foods according to how your body reacts to them.
    The microbiome diet may be more strict than the low-FODMAP diet. There are many overlaps of non-compliant food, though the microbiome diet has a longer list of restricted foods.

Food Combining Diet

The food combining diet has been touted as a solution for both weight loss and digestive improvements. In theory, combining certain foods and eating others separately encourages better digestion and fewer uncomfortable symptoms. However, there is a significant lack of scientific evidence to back up these claims.

Though the low-FODMAP diet is far more researched, both diets emphasize the consumption of whole foods over processed foods. The food combining diet also encourages mindfulness of what you’re eating. It’s less strict than the low-FODMAP diet but requires a similar amount of planning.

High-Fiber Diet

A go-to recommendation for people struggling with digestion is to consume more fiber. That’s the premise of the high-fiber diet. Fiber is associated with many proven health benefits: weight management, appetite control, regularity, heart health, cancer prevention, and more.

However, too much fiber can actually cause IBS symptoms and flare-ups. It’s not uncommon for fiber to be the root of gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation in some people.

The low-FODMAP diet is moderate in fiber, so fiber may not be an inherent cause of IBS symptoms — it is likely the FODMAPs found in high-fiber foods. The high-fiber diet recommends foods like legumes, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Some of these foods are non-compliant on the low-FODMAP diet because they cause discomfort.

If you have IBS or uncomfortable digestive symptoms, increasing your fiber seems like the obvious solution. However, the low-FODMAP diet encourages you to be selective about which foods you get your fiber from.

Dairy-Free Diet

Dairy products are among Americans’ favorite foods. However, many people are allergic to dairy or have lactose intolerance, which means they follow a dairy-free diet. Vegans also avoid dairy products.

Milk is rich in nutrients like calcium, protein, and vitamin D. However, the dairy-free diet aims to fill these nutritional gaps without causing an allergic reaction or an upset stomach. Non-dairy substitutes like soy milk may be used for convenience.

The low-FODMAP diet is free of most dairy products. However, lactose-free milk is allowed. Dairy products are considered high-FODMAP foods, which explains why so many people experience gas, bloating, abdominal pain, or diarrhea after consuming them.

Though the USDA recommends that people consume dairy products multiple times per day, both the dairy-free diet and low-FODMAP diet reject this recommendation in people who can’t tolerate cow’s milk.

Specific Carbohydrate Diet

The specific carbohydrate diet (SCD) is another program designed for people with gastrointestinal diseases, such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, IBD, celiac disease, and IBS. It shares many of the same goals as the low-FODMAP diet, but more research is needed to verify its effectiveness.
In both SCD and the low-FODMAP diet, foods rich in carbohydrates are restricted. Where SCD is more strict is in regards to canned foods, all grains, starches, and sweeteners. This diet is less restrictive, however, when it comes to fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy.
Due to the restrictive nature of both diets, you should consult with your doctor or dietician before proceeding with either.

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