Managing diverticulitis with diet

Diverticulitis is a disease caused by small pouches called diverticula in the colon (or large intestine) that bulge outward. The presence of diverticula alone results in a diagnosis of diverticulosis, a condition that’s often manageable without medical treatment and sometimes causes discomforts such as mild cramps, bloating, and constipation.

The risk of diverticulosis increases with age, and it affects about half of all men and women over the age of 60, though many are undiagnosed. Most patients are unaware that they have diverticulosis until it’s noticed on a routine colonoscopy. In most cases, it’s managed with increased fiber intake and over-the-counter pain relievers as needed.

However, if diverticula become infected, a patient receives a diagnosis of diverticulitis, which needs more aggressive treatment and can result in serious complications if left undetected.

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Often diagnosed by a physical exam or imaging after symptoms have begun, diverticulitis causes more pressing symptoms, including abdominal pain (often on the left side), fever, nausea, vomiting, chills, cramps, and constipation.

In its early stages, it’s treated with antibiotics to address the infection, but if left untreated, complications such as bleeding, tears, and blockages can develop. Complications sometimes need to be treated with a hospital stay and/or surgery, and many patients recovering from a bout of diverticulitis are put on pain medications and a liquid diet in addition to antibiotics.

No one’s sure what causes diverticulitis, but it’s probably a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors include aging, weight gain, being male, and of course, having a diagnosis of diverticulosis.

Research into whether fiber intake affects your risk of developing diverticulitis is conflicted, but it’s clear that increased fiber intake, along with weight loss and regular exercise, plays a significant role in preventing relapses once your body has had a chance to recover.

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Immediately following a flare up of diverticulitis, it’s important to give your colon as much of a break as possible. This is why liquid diets are often recommended after severe episodes, and in extreme cases, IV nutrition is used to give the intestines a complete rest.

Once you’ve been given the green light to eat solid food, it’s important to maintain a low-fiber diet until your body has had a chance to recover.

This may seem counter-intuitive since a high fiber diet is an important part of reducing your risk of relapse, but you can gradually increase your fiber intake after your colon has healed. In the immediate aftermath of diverticulitis, you want to keep your fiber intake as low as possible.

Foods to Avoid

1. Cruciferous Vegetables

Vegetables in this family are nutrition powerhouses and very high in fiber. They’re excellent food for people without diverticulitis but should be avoided during your recovery. The family includes broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. These foods also contain fermentable sugars that produce gas, stimulating your digestive tract.

2. Whole Grain Foods

Whole grain bread, pasta, and rice are normally great healthy choices, but they’re too hard to digest for your recovering intestines. Put them in the freezer for now, but don’t throw them out! They’ll be an important part of your diet after recovery.

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3. Oatmeal and Other Cereals High in Fiber

A bowl of oatmeal in the morning is touted as one of the healthiest breakfasts around, but not for your healing digestive tract. It’s a meal full of healthy calories, but it’s also very high in fiber.

4. Nuts and Seeds

You may have heard that nuts, seeds, and skins should be avoided by anyone who has ever had diverticulitis because they can easily get caught in diverticula and cause infection, but research doesn’t back this up. They should be avoided in the recovery period because of their high fiber content, but feel free to reintroduce them as you increase your fiber intake.

Keep in mind that, as odd as it seems, the foods you want to avoid in the immediate aftermath of diverticulitis are exactly the foods that you should be eating plenty of once you’re recovered in order to keep further flare ups at bay. Work with your doctor to develop a diet plan and to determine when you’re ready to start slowly including high fiber foods in your diet.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.