When you’re dealing with diarrhea, it’s understandable to want to make things better ASAP. After all, being chained to the toilet isn’t exactly a fun way to spend your day. But it also raises a lot of questions, including what, exactly, you’re supposed to eat that won’t make the situation even worse.
That’s when many people turn to the BRAT diet. Unlike many other popular diets, it’s not designed to make you healthier or to help you lose weight. Instead, it’ll (hopefully) stop the, er, flow. Not familiar with this eating plan? It has a very specific purpose—and a limited menu. Here’s what you need to know about the BRAT diet, plus when to go on it.
What is the BRAT diet, exactly?
BRAT is actually an acronym that stands for “Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast,” explains Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a dietitian and health coach, and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. “It’s a very bland diet that’s designed to be gentle on your stomach,” she says.
People often reach for the BRAT diet when they have diarrhea, but it’s hard to say if it’s actually effective, says David Cutler, M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “The BRAT diet generates a lot of interest due to its simplicity, low cost, safety, and apparent effectiveness for a common condition—diarrhea caused by an intestinal virus,” he says. “But the value of a BRAT diet is unproven, and most likely minimal. This is because almost all cases of diarrhea due to intestinal viruses will resolve in a few days regardless of the diet used.”
He also notes that “the most important initial treatment for diarrhea is fluid replacement, not diet.”
Still, Dr. Cohen says, that doesn’t mean a BRAT diet won’t help. “When you are ill and your ability to digest food may be limited, a BRAT diet or other easy to digest foods may help resolve diarrhea or other intestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain,” he says.
What can you eat on the BRAT diet?
In general, the BRAT diet focuses on four main ingredients:
But you can branch out slightly from that, says Sonya Angelone, R.D., a spokeswoman for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Simple crackers and broth can be included,” she says. You’d also probably be OK having other bland foods like cream of wheat and oatmeal, Cording says.
It’s also “not uncommon” to include cooked eggs “since they are easy to digest,” says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet.
“Generally speaking, these are all pretty easy to digest foods,” says Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “They tend to have low amounts of fiber and will not add to the amount of material that remains in your GI tract making the diarrhea worse.”
When should you go on the BRAT diet?
You can start it when you develop diarrhea, Cording says.
Dr. Cohen just recommends looking out for symptoms like blood in your poop, severe stomach pain, a high fever, and constant vomiting—you’ll want to reach out to your doctor if you have those since they could be a sign of a more serious health condition than run-of-the-mill diarrhea.
But, if you don’t have those symptoms and you’re able to hydrate well, “then it is generally prudent to proceed with a BRAT or similar easily digestible diet,” Dr. Cohen says.
BRAT diet side effects
In general, the BRAT diet is pretty easy to use and has minimal side effects, Angelone says—you just don’t want to be on it for an extended period of time.
“The BRAT diet is very limited in nutrients, fiber, and calories so shouldn’t be followed for very long,” Angelone says. “It can contribute to constipation and nutrient deficiencies, including protein.”
Keatley agrees. “This diet does not have much calcium, B12, protein, or fiber,” he says. “In the long-term it could be bad for hair, skin, nails, teeth, and bones and keep you ill for a longer period of time.”
How long should you be on the BRAT diet?
It depends on how you’re feeling. “After two days of BRAT, if diarrhea has improved, then it is safe to advance to a more balanced diet,” Dr. Cohen says. But, he says, you’ll still want to avoid harder-to-digest foods (think: nuts and seeds and spicy things) and avoid foods that contain lactose (milk, cheese, yogurt), since they can be tough on your still-sensitive stomach.
But, if you’re still struggling with No.3 after a week, Dr. Cohen recommends reaching out to your doctor about next steps.
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