Your diet doesn't cause Crohn's disease, and changing what you eat can't cure the condition. But keeping a food diary can help you correlate your Crohn's symptoms to the foods that you eat so that you can identify the worst offenders — and avoid them.
Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive system. "Although any part of the GI tract can be affected, inflammation of the small intestine is the hallmark of Crohn's disease, which leads to a reduced ability to break down foods and absorb nutrients," explains Everyday Health nutritionist Kelly Kennedy, RD. The result? Severe GI discomfort, diarrhea, and malnourishment.
There's no universal list of foods that trigger Crohn's symptoms or one set Crohn’s diet to follow — you have to uncover your individual triggers and create your own personalized list. And a food diary is exactly the tool you need to do that.
What to Track in Your Food Diary
Keeping a food diary can help you pinpoint specific foods that exacerbate your Crohn's symptoms. Here are some tips on what to record to help you gain better control over them:
- Write down the details of everything you eat. Log all meals, snacks, beverages, sides, and even condiments — and don't forget the things we eat without even realizing it: salad dressing, the mayonnaise on your sandwich, the handful of candy from the stash in your desk, or the mid-afternoon coffee with cream and sugar that you had as a pick-me-up.
- Write down how much you’re eating. Weigh your food or keep track of portion sizes so you have a good sense of the volume you’re eating. For instance, don’t just jot down “chicken,” but rather “5 ounces of skinless chicken breast.” Do the same for each food at each meal and in between — every time food goes in your mouth, write down exact measurements.
- Record when and how often you eat. "Jot down what time you ate each meal to determine if your schedule, combined with how much and what you're eating, is making your Crohn's symptoms worse," recommends Kennedy.
- Log your Crohn’s symptoms. Write down every time you experience any symptoms. List the specific symptoms you had and how severe they were; note how long after eating or drinking they occurred.
Log your foods for at least two weeks to get the most accurate picture of how what you eat contributes to your Crohn's symptoms. For the digitally savvy, you can also track your food using several apps like GI Buddy or MyPlate Calorie Tracker.
How to Use Your Food Diary to Keep Crohn’s Flares in Check
Work with your dietitian or doctor to review your food diary and look for any Crohn’s symptoms that could be linked to food. A dietitian can also analyze your food diary to make sure that you're getting enough of the right nutrients and eating a variety of healthy foods, which is very important for Crohn's patients.
After identifying the foods and beverages that you suspect could be making you feel worse, try an elimination diet. This involves eliminating items you ate on days when you had a bad bout of Crohn's symptoms to see if the symptoms subside. If they do, it's likely that those are your particular trigger foods.
Just make sure to eliminate one food at a time so that you can figure out the exact food that’s causing the issues without removing more than necessary, says Kennedy. "It's never a good idea to eliminate whole food groups over a long period of time, so if this is the case for you, see a dietitian to make sure you’re meeting your nutritional needs," she says.
It's also important to understand that your body and Crohn's disease can change over time, and foods that never bothered you before may start causing problems. If you notice that your Crohn's symptoms are suddenly flaring more frequently, break out your journal and start keeping a food diary again.
Though controlling your diet won't allow you to completely manage Crohn's disease, it can help prevent flare-ups and help you enjoy more symptom-free days.