At times, food can upset our stomachs and not agree with us. However, if you have a digestive disorder, certain foods can further contribute to discomfort and problems.

Simply put, our dietary choices matter. And if you are one of the 62 million Americans diagnosed with a gastrointestinal (GI) disease, it’s important to know how nutrition plays a significant role.

How Does the Digestive System Work?

Your digestive system breaks down the complex carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (macronutrients) from the foods we eat into simpler substances that can be used by the body.

Digestion begins in the mouth and includes multiple other organs, including the esophagus, small intestine, pancreas, liver, and large intestine. Undigested and unabsorbed nutrients become waste, which is passed out of our bodies.

Food is the fuel that can help give us the energy to function.

“Carbohydrates become glucose, giving our brain and muscles energy,” says Erica Hornung, RD, nutritionist, UPMC Nutrition Services. “Fats help to store energy, protect our vital organs, and allow certain vitamins to be absorbed. Finally, proteins are the building blocks of all cells in the body, they help to boost your immune system, increase your metabolism, and keep you feeling full.”

In addition to these three macronutrients, the micronutrients in vitamins and minerals also provide the necessary fuel for our body. For example, some of the B vitamins help with nerve function, vision, energy metabolism, and the making of new blood cells.

Therefore, it’s important to consume a wide variety of foods — doing so helps your body work efficiently.

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Common GI Disorders

Different GI disorders can affect your body’s natural digestive process, causing symptoms and affecting your quality of life. Digestive disorders can range in their severity and symptoms among patients. Common colon and GI diseases and conditions include:

GI Disease Symptoms

Any new or worsening symptom should be discussed with your doctor because many conditions share some of those associated with GI disease. A physical exam, diagnostic tests, and a review of your health history can help to determine the origin of your problems.

Common symptoms of digestive disorders include:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Any sudden change in patterns of eating, bowel movements, worsening stomach pain, or unexpected weight loss should not be ignored.

GI Disorders And Your Diet

Depending on which GI disorder you have, you may need to follow a specific diet.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a chronic condition that can affect the small intestine. Eating gluten — a protein commonly found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats — can trigger symptoms in people with celiac disease.

“Patients with celiac disease must follow a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet,” Hornung says. “Gluten is found in many foods and beverages, so knowing how to avoid gluten is important.”

Inflammatory bowel disease

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), which lead to chronic inflammation of the GI tract. These patients may need help dealing with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

During flare-ups, following a low fat, high protein, modified fiber diet may aid in reducing inflammation and symptoms. Patients may require supplemental nutrition through feeding tubes depending upon the extent of their IBD.

When IBD is in remission, antioxidants and other vitamin and mineral supplements are recommended. This allows patients to restore their digestive health and keep it healthy.


Gastroparesis occurs when there is nerve damage in the stomach. In gastroparesis, food is delayed from emptying in the stomach. Changing a patient’s diet helps food and beverages move through the stomach easier since certain foods can cause more pain and vomiting.

Your GI Team

If you have a GI disorder, you may see a variety of medical professionals. All can play a role in helping you manage your disorder.

  • Gastroenterologists: Doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating problems in the GI tract and liver. They may order blood tests, x-rays, or a CT scan. They perform routine procedures, such as colonoscopies, and may conduct a stool test to see how well the body absorbs and uses fats. They also can determine how well food moves through the digestive system.
  • Primary care providers (PCPs): Practitioners who are involved in a patient’s primary care across their lifespan. They are known as the first point of contact in the health care system. Their role involves diagnosing and treating acute and severe illnesses, performing annual well visits, providing age-appropriate immunizations, and counseling on lifestyle changes.
  • Dietitians: Experts in using food and nutrition to promote health and manage disease. By counseling clients on their individual challenges and nutritional needs, they help establish healthy eating habits to support disease, chronic conditions, as well as maintain their overall health.

A registered dietitian works collaboratively with GI doctors and PCPs to help patients navigate symptoms and ensure they meet their nutritional requirements.

Patients can expect to spend approximately one hour with a dietitian as they develop a customized nutritional plan. Sometimes follow-up visits are recommended to monitor progress.

“If symptoms are not improving, we will continue to work with the individual and problem-solve together,” Hornung says. “There is not a one-size-fits-all plan, and options exist, so patients should not feel discouraged.”

After a new dietary approach is determined, the dietitian consults with the patient’s GI doctor to determine the best plan of care moving forward.

Whether you have a GI disorder or not, it’s always important to consider nutrition. Choosing healthy habits contributes to preventive care and reduces the risk of disease and illness. A balanced diet not only helps the heart and intestines, but it also helps your mood, skin, and brain function.

“If you don’t currently have any GI conditions, do not eliminate any food groups unless medically advised,” Hornung says. “Consume a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy. These offer many different nutrients that benefit everybody.”

Hornung also insists people get plenty of fiber in their diets. Increasing your fiber and getting plenty of fluids helps move food through the digestive tract and allows you to stay regular. Foods high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes.

At UPMC, we treat people for a variety of different digestive disorders and conditions. To find a provider near you, visit us online.

About Digestive Disorders

UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.