A stomach bug isn’t usually a health emergency, but a bout of vomiting and diarrhea probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.
When you’re suddenly suffering from digestive issues, certain foods can make a difference. We’re talking about the BRAT diet—bland, stomach-settling foods that your mom probably used to give you when you were sick as a kid. Here’s what it is, how it works, and how much it can actually help you.
What is the BRAT diet?
The BRAT diet is a low-fiber diet consisting of bananas, white rice, applesauce, and white toast. “BRAT diet foods may be beneficial because they’re soft, somewhat bland, and easily digestible,” explains James Elder III, DO, an internist at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth. BRAT diet foods are low in fiber, so they might help make your poops firmer, and because they don’t have much fat (or flavor) they’re less likely to trigger nausea.
BRAT Diet Foods
What else can you eat on the BRAT diet?
Other light, bland foods can fit the same bill, even if they don’t fit the BRAT acronym. They include:
- Plain crackers
- Cereals and oatmeal
- Skinless chicken that’s poached or baked
What foods should I avoid on the BRAT diet?
- Fried, greasy, fatty foods
- High-fiber foods like raw vegetables and fruits
- Caffeinated beverages like coffee
Does the BRAT diet work?
The BRAT diet has been around forever and plenty of people swear by it. But there’s not much proof behind it, and the chances that it’ll actually cure your stomach woes are pretty slim, says David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. That’s because most cases of diarrhea are caused by intestinal viruses that will clear up on their own within a few days, regardless of what you eat. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends the BRAT diet for kids because it’s so restrictive.
But for adults, eating BRAT foods might at least help you feel a little better while your immune system fights off a nasty bug. At some point during your illness, you’re bound to get at least a little hungry. Bland BRAT foods are a lot less likely to irritate your symptoms than, say, a greasy cheeseburger or a bowl of ice cream.
How long should I follow the BRAT diet?
It’s a good idea to stick with clear liquids like water or broth for the first six to 12 hours of vomiting and diarrhea, Dr. Elder says. You likely won’t have much of an appetite, but these fluids can help you stay hydrated without making your symptoms worse.
After eight to 12 hours, go ahead try a few bites of BRAT foods. As long as your nausea anddon’t get worse, you can gradually increase your portions. (If they do flare up, go back to liquids for at least a few hours.) “Most people will find that only one to two days on the BRAT diet are necessary before they’re ready to slowly progress to a normal diet over two to three days,” Dr. Elder says.
How else can I treat diarrhea and vomiting?
Though BRAT foods might help ease your symptoms, there are other steps you can take to ease your suffering:
Drink plenty of fluids
“The most important initial treatment is fluid replacement,” Dr. Cutler says. Water is always a good choice.
Replace the electrolytes you’re losing
Diarrhea and puking make you lose important electrolytes like sodium and potassium, so it’s smart to take in fluids that contain those minerals. Think broth, fruit juice, or a sports drink. If the thought of guzzling a big glass of liquid is enough to make you feel sicker, try small, frequent sips, Dr. Elder recommends.
Eating probiotic-rich foods like plain yogurt might also be helpful, since some evidence shows that the good bacteria could help fight diarrhea-causing infections. But if you can’t stomach the idea of eating it, ask your doctor about taking a probiotic supplement instead.
Use OTC meds—with caution
Over-the-counter meds like Pepto-Bismol can mask your symptoms so you’re not running to the bathroom quite as often. Just check with your doctor before taking them, since they can actually make some types of diarrhea-related infections worse.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t follow the BRAT diet?
You shouldn’t rely on BRAT foods if you have an underlying gastrointestinal condition like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, Dr. Elder says. Same goes for anyone with a compromised immune system or those who have undergone bariatric procedures like gastric bypass or lap band surgery, he adds. All of these things can make you prone to dehydration when you have diarrhea, so it’s best to call your doctor ASAP instead of trying to treat the problem at home.
The BRAT diet isn’t working. When should I call the doctor?
Let your doctor know if your stomach issues haven’t eased up after two days. Having loose, watery stool for an extended amount of time increases the risk for dehydration. Plus, BRAT foods are pretty low in vitamins and minerals—and eating them for more than a few days could cause you to miss out on important nutrients, says Dr. Cutler.
Call your doctor immediately if you’re experiencing these symptoms:
- Severe pain in your abdomen or rectum
- Fever of 102°F or higher,
- Stools that are black, tarry, or contain blood or pus
All of these could be signs of a more serious problem, and you shouldn’t try to manage them with a BRAT diet.
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