Hey guys!

Seems like the general consensus is that you’re pleased with my balance of higher fat and lighter recipes – though requests for more calorically dense recipes have been noted!

I got the following email yesterday:

Hi Gena,

Have you heard of the book Eating for IBS? Maggie (The Salad Girl) wrote about it on her blog recently, and since I know you overcame IBS, I wanted your opinion. The book basically suggests that eating soluble fiber at the start of each meal is the key to IBS management. Do you think this is true? What are sources of soluble fiber (as opposed to insoluble)?


Thanks for asking, Cindy! I am indeed familiar with Heather Van Vorous’s book (though the last time I looked at it, I was in college). I tried a number of her suggestions at the time; they were many in a long succession of things I tried.

The main premise of Eating With IBS is that soluble fiber is the key to IBS management. Van Vorous posits that eating too much insoluble fiber and not enough soluble can immediately aggravate IBS symptoms (I think she’s right). She also takes care to emphasize that one must get a balance of soluble and insoluble fiber through diet: insoluble fiber can be an irritant, but it can’t be avoided.

So what exactly are soluble and insoluble fiber, and how are they different? To explain this, I’m afraid I’m going to have to get a little graphic: soluble fiber’s main function is to form a viscous, gel-like substance in the large intestine, which coats waste matter as it passes through the GI tract. This gel prevents emptying that is either too fast (diarrhea) or too slow (constipation). It also adds bulk to your stools, which is important regardless of whether you suffer from diarrhea, constipation, or both. Soluble fiber also prolongs stomach emptying, so that food is digested more slowly (this is part of why oats keep us full for so long!), and it binds to fatty acids (which is why barley and oats are famous for helping to lower bad cholesterol).

Soluble fiber isn’t found in the foods we most readily think of as fibrous (such as raw greens or vegetables). Instead, it’s most predominant in starchy foods, including oats, barley, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and white breads. Other sources are:

Pasta (white, not whole grain)
Corn meal

Insoluble fiber, by contrast, can’t dissolve in water. It lends bulk to stools, but no viscosity, which means that, eaten in excess, it can slow elimination down. It can also cause elimination to speed up too much (because our bodies can’t handle that much bulk at once). It’s what we find in raw veggies, whole wheat foods, bran, granola, crucifers, and most fruits.

According to Van Vorous, IBS management is contingent upon

(a)    getting soluble fiber at each meal
(b)    eating soluble fiber before insoluble fiber
(c)    avoiding excess insoluble fiber

No doubt this is very helpful for some folks with IBS. I myself tend to find starchy foods pretty easy to digest, and I’ve had clients who agreed. But of course, there’s really no perfect science to managing IBS. While getting increased fiber on the whole seems to work for most people with IBS, it’s hard to say whether soluble fiber intake will be a silver bullet for everyone. In fact, some people with IBS (or other digestive diseases, like IBD) find that starch can be problematic, and thrive on low-starch diets. So, the best I can say about the theory is that it is probably a great answer for some folks with IBS; to find out whether that’s you, you’ll need to listen to your body.

Of course, this whole discussion does present me with a good opportunity to chat about fiber balance on the whole. One of the most common complaints I hear among new raw foods lovers is that they’re bloated and not eliminating well, even though they’re eating a ton of raw veggies. The problem often seems to be that they’re eating tons of insoluble fiber (in the form of raw fruits and veg), without any soluble fiber to balance it (because they’ve fearfully abandoned all starches and grains). Eating just a bit more whole grains, legumes, and starchy foods is often an immediate source of relief. On the other hand, some of my clients who seem to eat a lot of grains, but not quite enough fresh veggies, also seem to benefit from a more balanced approach; in this case, it means eating more insoluble fiber, rather than soluble. As with most things, balance is key.

So, Cindy, my advice is this: eat soluble fiber at the start of your meals, and see if it helps. Be sure to eat insoluble fiber, too, and be mindful of how the ratio affects you. But don’t be afraid to try other things if these methods don’t help you. All books on IBS offer possible courses of action, but none of them offer definitive solutions. What matters is that you educate yourself about options, and keep an open mind until you begin to feel relief!


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