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Diet Triggers Symptoms in Women With Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The Patient’s Perspective

Jarrett, Monica PhD, RN; Visser, Rachael MS, RD; Heitkemper, Margaret PhD, RN, FAAN


The purpose of this phenomenological analysis was to describe perceptions of women with irritable bowel syndrome regarding the relationship of diet to their symptoms. Thirty-five women ages 18–45 with a medical diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome or symptoms compatible with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome were interviewed and completed questionnaires as part of a larger study. During the interview, the women were asked what they thought caused their symptoms. Overall, women tried to adjust their diet to achieve a “Range of Comfort” so their symptoms were tolerable or manageable. To do this, women used a process of “Trial and Error.” If a link could be made to diet, then women developed “Self-care Strategies” to maintain a “Healthy Diet.” Women who failed to find a relationship during the “Trial and Error” process either felt the frustration of “Uncertainty” or, for a few women, decided that adjusting their diet was not worth the bother. This study suggests diet and eating behaviors are an important starting point for many women as they try to manage their irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.

About the authors: Monica Jarrett, PhD, RN, is Research Associate Professor; and Margaret Heitkemper, PhD, RN, FAAN, is Professor and Chair; Department of Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems, University of Washington, Seattle.

Rachael Visser, MS, RD, is Clinical Nutrition Specialist, Swedish Hospital Medical Center, Seattle, Washington.

Received February 2, 2001; accepted March 16, 2001.

Address correspondence to: Monica Jarrett, PhD, RN, Department of Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems, University of Washington, Box 357266, Seattle, WA 98195-7266 (e-mail:

© The Society of Gastroenterology Nurses & Associates 2001. All Rights Reserved.