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FOLLOWING YOUR GUT

The food giants are hustling to feed the millions tortured by irritable bowel syndrome

@JESSFIRGER

TWO YEARS ago, Boston dietitian Kate Scarlata stood proudly before a roomful of colleagues at a conference sponsored by the New England Dairy Council and announced her professional goal was “to make talking about IBS more sexy.” Everyone laughed.

Now the council may wish it had taken her mission a little more seriously. Scarlata has helped hundreds of people who have suffered for years, sometimes decades, with chronic and debilitating symptoms that include diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas and excessive abdominal pain. Usually, but not all the time, a physician diagnoses her clients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or another type of functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. Many tell her about enduring years of pain, embarrassment and unhelpful doctors’ visits.

Scarlata wants to change that. “Discussions about digestive problems are generally taboo,” she says. “Ironically, when I am at a social gathering and openly talk about what I do for a living, everyone near me seems to lean in and asks questions. Interest in gut health is at an all-time high.”

What Scarlata usually ends up discussing with strangers, friends and clients is fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs), short-chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by the small intestines. An increasing body of research shows that these food molecules trigger symptoms of IBS and some other digestive disorders—the malabsorption drags water into the intestines, which causes bloating. Because these food molecules are not properly absorbed, they end up in the large intestines, where bacteria that live in the gut feed on them and then produce gas byproducts, namely hydrogen and methane. This whole mess causes the intestines to distend, and the nerves in the intestinal walls send pain signals to the brain. Symptoms of this crippling condition can be intermittent or chronic. However, a diet low in FODMAPs appears to alleviate many of these problems.

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