Nutrition Hotline

QUESTION: "I have a condition called diverticulosis and have to avoid seeds, nuts, skins, cabbage,lettuce, or anything that could cover or plug the pockets in my digestive tract. But I've been told a vegan diet would be best for my condition. Don't most beans have skins? What are my options? " A.H., via email

ANSWER: If you've been diagnosed with diverticulosis, you have small pouches (or pockets), called diverticula, in your colon. Many doctors think that a low-fiber diet causes diverticula to form. A low-fiber diet often leads to constipation and to your bowel muscles having to strain to pass stool. This straining can lead to diverticula.

You may not even know that you have diverticulosis until you have a colonoscopy or other bowel exam. If bacteria or stool get caught in the pouches, the diverticula can become inflamed and cause pain and fever. If your diverticula are inflamed, the condition is called diverticulitis. Dietary treatments for diverticulosis and diverticulitis are different.

The treatment for diverticulosis (having pockets called diverticula) is a high-fiber diet, which helps you to avoid constipation and the straining that can lead to more diverticula forming. It may also help to keep you from having the symptoms of diverticulitis. To increase dietary fiber, eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables,beans, and other plant foods.

Diverticulitis (inflamed diver-ticula) is commonly treated with antibiotics and with a liquid diet so your intestines can heal. After a few days on a liquid diet, your doctor will probably recommend adding some soft, low-fiber foods. Once you have recovered, you'll be told to increase dietary fiber.

For years, people with diverticulosis were told to avoid foods like nuts, seeds, and popcorn because they might lodge in the diverticula and lead to infection. No scientific research supports these recommendations. More recently, studies have shown that it is all right to eat these foods and that they may even reduce your risk of developing diverticulitis1. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, recommends a high-fiber diet to treat diverticulosis and that eliminating specific foods is not necessary. In fact, beans are on their list of recommended high-fiber foods. See their website for more information. Based on their recommendations, foods commonly eaten on a vegan diet could easily be incorporated into a diet to treat diverticulosis.

If your diet does not include high-fiber foods, gradually introduce new foods. Of course, your unique situation may affect these recommendations. Dietary modifications should be discussed with your health care provider.

1 Strate LL, Liu YL, Syngal S,Aldoori WH, Giovannucci EL. 2008. Nut, corn, and popcorn consumption and the incidence of diverticular disease. JAMA 300:907-14.