If you’ve ever experienced a bowel obstruction, then you know how painful it can be. Bowel obstructions can affect anyone at any point in time. What exactly causes bowel obstructions, and is there anything you can do to prevent them?
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to help prevent bowel obstructions in the future. Here we go through everything you need to know about bowel obstructions, including the bowel obstruction diet.
What Is a Bowel Obstruction?
A bowel obstruction is a blockage that forms in the digestive tract. The obstruction can form for a variety of reasons:
- Scar tissue or adhesions: The development of scar tissue is common following a previous injury or surgery. Adhesions tend to be common after undergoing abdominal surgery and can contribute to the development of blockages in the digestive tracts.
- Inflammatory bowel diseases: Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease can result in inflammation in the tissues in the bowels, making it harder for food to pass along the digestive system. This can cause blockages to form more easily, resulting in either small bowel obstructions or large bowel obstructions.
- Diverticulitis: Diverticulitis causes inflamed and infected pockets in the large intestines. Constant inflammation can result in large bowel obstructions.
- Hernias: Hernias are gaps that form in the abdominal cavity. The intestines may bulge out of these gaps, which can cause pinching. Pinched areas in the intestines impeded the normal movement of food through the digestive tract, causing bowel obstructions.
- Certain medications: Opioid medications can cause severe constipation, which over time can form a bowel blockage.
- Ileus: Ileus describes inactivity of the digestive system and can occur following abdominal surgery. Unresolved ileus can lead to the development of a bowel obstruction.
The symptoms of a bowel obstruction are extremely painful, and may include:
- Nausea and vomiting: The stomach will be resistant to handling more food or liquids since nothing can pass through the digestive system. Nausea and vomiting are therefore a protective mechanism.
- Abdominal distention: If you have a bowel obstruction, you will notice significant bloating in your abdominal area.
- Abdominal pain: Bowel obstructions usually cause a significant amount of abdominal pain due to the accumulation of gastric fluids, food particles, or stool. The pain may feel like aching or cramping.
- Inability to pass gas or stool: If you are experiencing a full bowel blockage, both gas and waste will be unable to pass through the digestive system, and you will have no bowel movements.
- Diarrhea: If you have a partial bowel obstruction, you may experience diarrhea.
Treatment for Bowel Obstruction
How is a bowel obstruction treated? In some cases, bowel obstructions will resolve on their own. A doctor may also administer an enema, which can relieve obstructions in the lower bowel. Anti-nausea medications, pain relief drugs, laxatives, or antibiotics can help manage the symptoms of a bowel obstruction. If an obstruction is severe, doesn’t resolve on its own, is unresponsive to other interventions, or recurs frequently, undergoing bowel obstruction surgery may be the best option. Surgery can remove the blockage as well as scar tissues or inflamed tissues that are causing the blockage.
The Bowel Obstruction Diet
1. Steer Clear of Stringy Foods
If you are prone to bowel obstructions, it’s a good idea to avoid stringy foods like arugula, rhubarb, celery, or dried meats. These foods are prone to wadding up in the intestine and creating a blockage. If you do eat these stringier foods, make sure to cut them into small pieces before consuming them.
2. Chew Your Food Thoroughly
If you are prone to bowel obstructions, make sure you chew your food thoroughly. Making sure your food is mechanically broken down in the mouth before passing into the digestive system lowers the likelihood of large food components getting caught in the intestines.
3. Eat Smaller Quantities
Avoid eating very large quantities of food at one time. Eating small meals allows the food particles to pass uninhibited through the digestive tract. Instead of eating large meals, opt to eat smaller amounts of food more frequently throughout the day.
4. Eat Less Fiber
Normally, fiber is a very healthy nutrient that promotes excellent digestive functioning and decreases systemic inflammation. However, for individuals who are prone to bowel obstructions, eating a low-fiber diet is important for preventing recurring obstructions.
There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber can dissolve in water, while insoluble fiber cannot. Because insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve, it bulks up waste products in the digestive system. A higher intake of insoluble fiber in one sitting can increase the risk of developing a bowel obstruction.
You can limit your intake of insoluble fiber by avoiding foods like lentils, cauliflower, kale, parsnips, turnip, pomegranate, and sweet potato. Other high-fiber foods to avoid include seeds, nuts, quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, and fresh fruits like avocado, papaya, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. It’s also best to steer clear of dried fruits like apricots, prunes, and dates.
5. Cutting Out Irritating Foods
To help prevent a bowel obstruction, aim to avoid foods that irritate the bowel and cause inflammation. Everyone is sensitive to different foods depending on his or her individual biochemistry, so make sure you avoid the foods that specifically trigger gastrointestinal discomfort for you. Common culprits for bowel inflammation include caffeine, certain spices, and alcohol.
6. Soft or Liquid Diet
In severe cases, you may be advised to avoid solid foods and instead follow a soft or liquid diet. Soft and liquid foods put the least strain on your digestive system and cannot cause a blockage. Foods like applesauce, smoothies, yogurt, cooked veggies, and eggs will make up the majority of your diet. You will need to be careful to get all of the nutrients you need, such as essential amino acids from high-quality protein and vitamins and minerals. If you are limited to a soft or liquid diet for a substantial period of time, ask your doctor if you should take any nutritional supplements, such as a multivitamin or protein supplement.
7. Eat Nut Butters
Whole nuts and seeds are full of fiber and challenging for the digestive system to process, which may increase the likelihood of developing a bowel obstruction. Instead, opt for nut butters like peanut butter or almond butter. Just make sure to choose the creamy kind of nut butter, without whole nut pieces.
8. Eat Fruits and Veggies Without Skin
The most fibrous part of fruits and vegetables is the skin. Some fruits and vegetables are acceptable to eat on the bowel obstruction diet, as long as the seeds and the skin or peel is removed. Examples of acceptable fruits and veggies include bananas, mangos, nectarines, peaches, kiwi, pumpkin, spinach, grapefruit, zucchini, bell peppers, and tomatoes. In the case of citrus fruits, ensure that the white membrane is removed.
9. Cook Your Fruits and Vegetables
Raw vegetables and fruits can be much challenging for the digestive system to process, therefore increasing the likelihood of developing a bowel obstruction. When preparing fruits and veggies, it’s best to cook and mash them to ensure that they are as easy to digest as possible. Cooking fruits and veggies helps break down the cell walls and tough compounds like cellulose found in plant foods, which makes them easier to digest.
10. Avoid Tough, Fatty Meats
Tough meats can be extremely difficult to chew, which makes it challenging for the digestive system to process. Meat can easily ball up in the digestive system and cause obstructions. This is especially true of fatty meats that are marbled or contain gristle. Avoid fatty cuts of meat like steak and bacon, and opt for lean meats that are well cooked, easy to chew, soft, and cut up into small pieces. Chicken breast and fish are good options for meat when following the bowel obstruction diet.
11. Stick to Refined Flours
Normally, whole grains like whole-wheat pasta and bread are important components of a healthy diet. However, when trying to prevent a bowel obstruction, it’s better to consume refined flours. Refined flours have been processed to remove the part of the grain that contains the most protein and fiber. If you’re making foods like waffles, pancakes, or muffins, use white flour instead of whole-wheat flour.
Meal Ideas When Following a Bowel Obstruction Diet
We’ve provided a few meal ideas to help get you started on the bowel obstruction diet. Even though the bowel obstruction diet has many restrictions, there are still many meals you can enjoy that are both tasty and nutritious.
There are many different breakfasts you can prepare that are healthy, easy to digest, and follow guidelines for preventing a bowel obstruction.
- Bagel: An easy breakfast idea is to lightly toast a bagel and top with scrambled eggs and chopped, cooked spinach. The bagel provides carbohydrates, while the eggs provide complete protein and the spinach provides micronutrients. Make sure that the bagel is prepared with white flour and low in fiber.
- Parfait: Prepare a yogurt parfait using plain or vanilla nonfat Greek yogurt, which is filled with high-quality protein. Top with peeled and chopped mangos or nectarines. If you’re looking for some extra crunch, avoid granola and instead top your yogurt with a low-fiber cereal like corn flakes or rice crispies.
- Smoothie: A smoothie makes a quick and healthy breakfast. Blend bananas, frozen strawberries, and vanilla-flavored essential amino acid powder, to ensure that you’re getting the protein you need. Use frozen bananas and frozen strawberries to give your smoothie a milkshake consistency.
Here are a few lunch ideas that can be eaten when you’re on-the-go, and help prevent a bowel obstruction.
- Soup: Soup is an excellent lunch option on the bowel obstruction diet. Soups should be made of ingredients like pureed vegetables without skins, broth, and white pasta. Cream soups are another acceptable option.
- Baked white potato: A loaded baked potato can be a satisfying lunch on the bowel obstruction diet, but just be sure to avoid eating the skin. Top your baked potato with shredded low-fat cheese, low-fat ground chicken or beef, and a dollop of plain nonfat Greek yogurt.
- Sandwich: Prepare a sandwich made with white bread and avoid whole-grain breads. Top your sandwich with smooth peanut butter or a slice of low-fat cheese.
Even though your foods are restricted on the bowel obstruction diet, you have more varied dinner options than you might think! Here are a few ideas.
- Salmon: Salmon is an excellent protein option when you are following a bowel obstruction diet. Not only does salmon offer balanced ratios of essential amino acids, but also omega-3 fatty acids that help lower systemic inflammation. Make sure the salmon is well-cooked and very soft. Serve with white rice and a small portion of cooked, skinned veggies.
- Mac n’ cheese: Nothing hits the spot quite like pasta and cheese. Simply combine your favorite white pasta with a blend of low-fat cheeses. To increase the nutritional value of your mac n’ cheese, stir in chopped, cooked, and peeled veggies like carrots, spinach, radishes, eggplant, bean sprouts, and pumpkin. Canned pumpkin works great in mac n’ cheese because it adds vibrant color.
- Pasta bolognese: Prepare your favorite white pasta, such as spaghetti or penne. Make sure to cook the pasta thoroughly, so that it is very soft and easy to digest. Top with jarred or canned tomato sauce and ground meat. If you are a vegetarian, substitute ground tofu for the meat, to ensure that you’re getting protein.
Snacks can be more challenging to prepare since so many snack foods tend to be crunchy, chewy, and filled with nuts and dried fruits. Here are a few options to try.
- Fruit and veggies juices: Fruit juice and vegetable juice are great options to help keep your intake of antioxidants high. Make sure that the juices you drink are free of seeds and pulp, which contain fiber.
- Popsicles or ice cream: Though not the healthiest option since they are high in sugar, popsicles or a scoop of ice cream can be a great snack that complies with the bowel obstruction diet. Make sure that the popsicles are made with natural fruit juice without pulp or seeds, and choose low-fat ice cream.
- Yogurt or custard: Both yogurt and custard are soft foods that are usually individually packaged and easy to grab as a snack. Choose options that are low in sugar and fat.
Things to Keep in Mind
When you are following a bowel obstruction diet, it’s important that the foods you eat are tailored to your specific needs, based on your doctor’s recommendations. Always follow your physician’s advice regarding your specific needs. If you are restricted to a soft or liquid diet especially, it may be a good idea to talk to a registered dietitian as well, to make sure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need in your diet.
Bowel Obstruction Diet: Conclusion
Your food choices can help prevent the recurrence of a bowel obstruction. When you are following the bowel obstruction diet, it’s best to avoid high-fiber, stringy, and irritating foods. In some cases, a liquid or soft diet may be recommended. Always consult your physician to make sure you’re choosing the best foods for your specific condition. Though bowel obstructions are extremely painful and a huge nuisance, they can be treated with medical interventions, surgery, and diet choices.