Best Foods for an Upset Stomach - May 2022

Everyone experiences an upset stomach at some time with symptoms such as pain, bloating, belching or cramping. The cause of an upset stomach could be a meal that didn't sit well with you, stress, nerves, a 24-hour bug, food allergies, food sensitivities, and parasites. You may also experience diarrhea or vomiting.

Some general tips for managing an upset stomach

  • Eat something light, easily digestible and bland (strong scents can worsen nausea)
  • Avoid foods high in fibre or fat and choose more easily digested simple carbohydrates and lean proteins 
  • Eat small, frequent meals to allow you to digest your food gradually. Kristen Smith, MS, RD, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells the Insider website that you want to eat about half the amount you usually eat temporarily. Avoid having an empty stomach as this can cause more nausea because there is nothing in the system to absorb stomach acid
  • Eat slowly to prevent your stomach from filling up too quickly 

Foods/beverages to consume  

  • Liquids - can be lost through vomiting and diarrhea. Fluids are an easy way to address dehydration and help with constipation by softening stools. Rudolph Bedford, MD, is a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He explains to the HealthLine website that clear liquids are the most digestible because they don't leave any undigested residue behind in the intestines. Clear liquids are liquids you can see through even though they still have colour. Some examples of liquids include: 
  • Soup - this is a good choice if you have a low appetite or struggle to keep food down. Options include low-sodium clear broth-based soups such as vegetable or bone broths that are easily digested and provide vitamins, protein and other nutrients. 
  • Herbal teas - are soothing and include ginger, licorice, chamomile, spearmint and mint. Chamomile has many beneficial features, such as helping with nausea, having anti-inflammatory properties, and reducing gas. You can make ginger tea by slicing or grating fresh ginger and adding hot water. Having these spices in tea form is easily tolerated. Since many pull water into the colon, sweeteners, especially artificial sweeteners, will make you feel worse. Registered Dietitian Valerie Goldberg of the "No Diet Dietitian" website suggests drinking tea without sweeteners when feeling nauseous.
  • Regular weak tea - do not put in milk
  • Other liquids - include plain water, diluted fruit juice, Popsicle, electrolyte drinks and Jell-O. Be aware that sports drinks are high in sugar and can worsen diarrhea and upset digestion. What about ginger ale for nausea? Registered Dietitian Amanda Li points out that ginger ale contains little ginger. When vomiting, choose clear fluids and do not eat solid foods. Have small amounts of fluids every 10 to 30 minutes. Once vomiting has ceased for 4 hours, increase up to 9 to 12 cups of liquid per day if you can tolerate this amount. When introducing solid foods, drink 30 to 60 minutes before or after eating foods. If the scent of a beverage is causing nausea, Alberta Health Services suggests drinking it with a straw. Do not, however, maintain a clear liquid diet for more than a few days since it doesn't provide enough nutrients or calories. 
  • Spices - coriander, cardamom and fennel can help with indigestion and reduce bloating and constipation. Ginger has been used for centuries to address nausea and vomiting and treat morning sickness and chemotherapy. Some research supports ginger as being as effective as prescription anti-nausea medication. Ginger comes in the form of tea, ginger chews and ginger chips. Ginger is available as an herbal supplement. Speak to your pharmacist about the recommended amount for nausea. Experts believe the benefits come from gingerol, which has antispasmodic (preventing or relieving muscle spasms) and muscle-relaxing effects. Note that you should not treat a child's gastrointestinal illness with ginger. Ginger is superior to chamomile for addressing nausea.
  • Plain saltines - for diarrhea, plain saltines made with white flour are better than whole-grain crackers with fibre. Saltines are a great "plain" example as they have virtually no fibre, fat, or sugar 
  • BRAT - bananas, rice, applesauce (unsweetened), and toast - these foods are a short-term regimen for people with an upset stomach. Bananas contain potassium and other electrolytes lost from vomiting or diarrhea. Apples contain high levels of pectin, also known as the "thickening fibre," that can prevent the over-stimulation of the bowel. White rice is high in simple carbohydrates and low in fibre 
  • Potatoes - including sweet potatoes, are suggested by Shahzadi Devje, registered dietitian, as an easily digested starch. Potatoes, like bananas, are high in potassium. Eating them restores the electrolytes lost when vomiting or having diarrhea  
  • Protein sources - such as unseasoned and skinless chicken and turkey, or fish, as these choices are filling and easier to digest compared to fattier red meat. Prepare them using cooking methods such as grilling, roasting or broiling 
  • Linseed for constipation - the Medical News Today website suggests taking linseed oil or sprinkling linseeds on cereal/oatmeal or smoothies while increasing fluid intake to soften bulky stools 
  • Plain scrambled eggs - eggs are a protein and carbohydrate source that you can serve on dry toast 
  • Oatmeal - as a soluble fibre source, oatmeal can regulate bowel movements and be a better choice than wheat with insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre can benefit diarrhea and constipation because it helps make soft, bulky stools when taken with lots of water. Insoluble fibre, in contrast, speeds up movement in the intestine, which can make diarrhea worse. Registered Dietitian Lauren McNeill tells Global News that the most important thing is sticking to foods high in soluble fibre and low in insoluble fibre. Whole grains are generally great choices for a healthy diet because they have both types of fibre, but you don't want insoluble fibre when managing an upset stomach 
  • Sugarless gum - some research supports chewing sugarless gum for 30 minutes after a meal. The benefit of chewing gum is saliva production, which neutralizes acid, soothes the esophagus and washes acid back down to the stomach. Peppermint gum is not a good choice as it can cause heartburn  
  • Probiotics - individuals can eat probiotic-rich foods after experiencing vomiting or diarrhea to replenish the beneficial gut bacteria. Low-fat or fat-free unsweetened plain probiotic yogurt can promote digestion and provide calcium and protein. Other probiotic choices include kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kombucha and kimchi 

What not to eat?

High fat milk, cheese and ice cream are hard to digest. Fried foods with their oil and grease are not a good choice. What about soda? The issues with soda include the bubbles adding gas and sugar that quickly enter the bloodstream and make diarrhea worse. WebMD approves of small amounts of flat soda, i.e., no longer fizzy. Do not drink sugary drinks or alcohol. People should avoid caffeinated beverages like coffee and sports drinks if they feel nausea or reflux not related to constipation. Avoid spicy foods that may require the digestive system to work harder

According to WebMD, people can slowly introduce fruits and vegetables when they have not vomited or had diarrhea in 24 to 48 hours. Start with cooked vegetables and juices.

When to seek medical attention? 

  • Losing weight unintentionally
  • Losing your appetite
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Cramping, bleeding, pain
  • Having symptoms that continue for too long (vomiting for more than 24 to 48 hours or having a fever with vomiting)
  • Experiencing pain, bloating, or a swollen stomach and no relief after vomiting  

How to keep a healthy digestive system? 
Harvard Medical School lists the following actions:

  • Do not smoke
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet
  • Exercise as per the recommendations of 150 minutes
  • Find strategies that work for you to manage stress
Sources: Alberta Health Services Managing Nausea and Vomiting handout, US News and World Report website, Medical News Today website, Harvard Medical School website, EatingWell website, Good Housekeeping website, Global News website, WebMD website, Insider website

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