Can food have an effect?

Yes! The bowel is designed for processing food, and so naturally what you put in can have an effect on what comes out. However, it is not easy to offer advice on this as it seems to vary from person to person, and there is very little research on which foods can make incontinence better or worse. What will make life a nightmare for one person seems to have no effect at all on someone else. And of course eating and drinking should be a pleasure, not just to keep us alive, so it would be a great pity to make life a misery by constantly worrying about what you eat or drink.

It is worth experimenting a little to see if you can find anything that upsets your control. Food rich in fibre is the most common contributor to poor bowel control, but other foods, such as very spicy or hot food, can upset some people. If you think that there may be a link with what you eat, try keeping a diary to see if there is a pattern.

Moderating your fibre intake

Fibre is one of the waste products from your food that your body cannot digest and use. Generally, in Western countries, our diet does not contain as much fibre as it should for good health, and we are often told that fibre is good for you and that you should eat more. This is generally good advice, and if your stools are very loose, or contain a lot of mucus, fibre may help you to obtain more formed stools.

However, we know that for some people with bowel control problems, fibre can make matters worse. Fibre keeps fluid in the bowel rather than letting it be absorbed. If you have normal formed stools fibre will make your bowel motions softer, and so more likely to leak. Fibre also helps to stimulate the bowel, and so can make you pass a motion more often and with greater urgency.

We are not suggesting that you eat an unhealthy diet, but that it may be worth experimenting a little to see which foods make your control better or worse. This is very individual, our bodies do not all react the same, and it is a case of trial and error to see which foods, if any, cause problems for you. You should always eat some fruit and vegetables each day do not cut these out completely. Start by avoiding fibre supplements such as unprocessed bran, and deliberately high fibre foods (such as bran cereal) and the fruit and vegetables that have a particularly high fibre content.

Foods Rich in Fibre

WHOLEGRAIN CEREALS (e.g. shredded wheat, weetabix, branflakes, porridge, muesli)
BEANS (including baked beans)
WHOLEMEAL BISCUITS (e.g. digestive, rye crispbread, oatcakes)
FRUIT (especially if eaten with skin or pips)
VEGETABLES (especially if eaten with skin or seeds, e.g. jacket potatoes)
NUTS, SEEDS & DRIED FRUIT (such as sultanas, raisins, dried apricots)

Other foods to consider

Some people find that milk products and chocolate make their stools looser. If you have had a course of antibiotics this can upset your bowel and live natural yoghurt or yoghurt drink can help to restore a more regular habit.

Conversely, some foods help to make stools firmer and therefore easier to control for some people. Arrowroot biscuits, marshmallow sweets and bananas each help some people. A high fat intake can slow down the speed with which food travels through the bowel, but this is obviously not healthy for other reasons and so cannot be recommended!

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are sugars which cannot be absorbed by your body, so that they taste sweet but do not make you put on weight. They can be very useful if you are counting your calories and trying to loose weight. But for some people they can make the stools loose, or even cause diarrhoea as they act as a laxative. If you have problems with bowel control, this can make things worse, and it may be worth cutting out all artificial sweeteners and seeing if this helps. These artificial sweeteners are in most foods and drinks branded as Low calorie, including Diet drinks and low sugar chewing gum.