What Is a Low-Residue Diet—and Is It Healthy?
Here's some nutrition advice you likely don't hear every day: Eat less fiber. That's exactly the premise behind the low-residue diet.
Pictured Recipe: Beef Bone Broth
We know what you're thinking: "Didn't you just tell me that it's best to follow a high-fiber diet?" In most cases, yes. This is especially true since research suggests consuming enough fiber (25 grams per day for women or 38 grams for men; most of us get about 16 grams daily currently) can reduce risk for heart disease and diabetes, boost longevity, improve gut health, keep you regular and increase satiety.
But individuals with certain medical conditions might actually receive an Rx from their doctor to follow a low-fiber, aka low-residue, diet. Read on to discover the pros and cons of this unique intervention, see a sample day in the life via a low-residue diet menu and get the final answer from dietitians about who should—and definitely shouldn't—consider this low-fiber diet.
We spoke with Roxana Ehsani, M.S., RD, CSSD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Las Vegas and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., RDN, CPT, a San Diego-based registered dietitian and the author of the Air Fryer Cookbook for Dummies, for some expert intel.
What Is a Low-Residue Diet?
A low-residue diet is one that's designed to create as few demands as possible on the gastrointestinal tract. "Residue" refers to the indigestible material that remains in the GI tract after digestion is finished. BTW, this is totally normal for most humans, and often includes a decent amount of fiber since the body cannot fully digest some of the fiber in foods. It eventually works its way through and out of a normal gut through our stools. But for those with certain GI-tract illnesses, this might not be the case. A low-residue diet is designed to create fewer and smaller stools to reduce risk for GI-condition flare-ups or to prepare for certain procedures. (More on this below.)
"When I worked in clinical dietetics, we often would put patients who were struggling with GI challenges on a low-residue diet for a set period of time," says Shaw. "This wouldn't usually be a long-term diet we implemented, but rather a short-term fix to help lessen symptoms until their body could tolerate fiber again."
Until recently, there wasn't a clear consensus about how much fiber people were recommended to eat on a low-residue diet. In 2015, researchers completed a literature review and landed on the magic number: 10. A low-residue-diet menu should include 10 grams or less of fiber per day, ideally, to help limit GI symptoms.
How to Follow a Low-Residue Diet
A low-residue diet should only be embarked upon under the guidance of a registered dietitian, who will offer personalized advice. Here are some foods that are typically included, and foods that should be avoided when following this intervention.
Foods to Avoid
As a general rule, a low-residue diet plan involves limiting or avoiding anything that can irritate the digestive tract or any high-fiber foods, including:
- Acidic ingredients, including tomatoes and citrus
- Spicy foods
- Fried fare
- Legumes, nuts and seeds
- Most raw fruits and vegetables
- Most whole grains, including popcorn, bread and pasta
- Prunes, figs and other high-fiber dried fruits
- Deli meats
Foods to Include
A low-residue diet leaves options like these on the table:
- White carbohydrates, such as bread, rice, pasta and cereal
- Clear broths and juices
- Some low-fiber vegetables, including well-cooked summer squash, spinach, pumpkin, eggplant, green beans, carrots and potatoes
- Some low-fiber fruits, like ripe bananas, melon and stone fruit
- Finely ground, well-done meat
- A limited amount of butter and oil
- Up to 2 cups of certain dairy products, including yogurt and ricotta cheese
Shaw and Ehsani teamed up to create a choose-your-own-adventure sample menu for a day in the life on a low-residue diet to show how to put this all into practice. This is in addition to 64 ounces or more of water for adequate hydration (unless otherwise recommended by a doctor or dietitian).
- Choose one breakfast:
- 2 eggs and ½ cup sautéed mushrooms with 1 slice sourdough bread
- ½ cup cooked Cream of Wheat with 1 slice white bread and 1 tablespoon butter alongside 2 scrambled eggs
- Choose one lunch:
- 3 ounces well-done grilled flank steak on 2 corn tortillas topped with 1 cup shredded lettuce and ⅕ of an avocado, sliced or smashed
2 slices white bread with 3 ounces tuna and 1 tablespoon mayo alongside 1 cup chicken noodle soup
Choose one snack:
- Choose one dinner:
- 4 ounces grilled or roasted salmon with 1 cup cooked white rice and ⅓ cup cooked canned green beans
- 3 ounces grilled or roasted chicken breast with 1 small baked potato, skin removed, and 8 grilled or roasted asparagus spears
Is a Low-Residue Diet Healthy? (Plus Who Should and Shouldn't Follow It)
As with many nutrition trends (ahem, peganism) or even long-standing diets like the since-the-1970s Dukan diet, the answer to "is a low-residue diet healthy?" is "it depends." Usually, no, it's neither healthy nor necessary.
But it can be very beneficial when suggested and supervised by a medical provider, Ehsani and Shaw agree.
"I would not necessarily classify this diet as healthy or unhealthy, for as we know that term has a lot of different interpretations depending on who you ask," Shaw says. "A low-residue diet can meet an individual's nutritional needs when planned with a dietitian for a particular person who has been prescribed this diet."
As far as who might fall into that camp, you might be a candidate for a short-term low-residue diet if you check any of these boxes:
- Crohn's disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Before a colonoscopy
- After bowel or certain other gastrointestinal tract surgeries
- During a GI bug or virus that includes diarrhea or vomiting
On the flip side, anyone who struggles with constipation, is aiming to control blood sugar or lower cholesterol should stay far, far away from a low-residue diet—as should anyone not prescribed the plan by their dietitian or health care provider.
"Most Americans don't come close to consuming the recommended amount of dietary fiber each day, so it's important that a healthy person without any types of complications or without being prescribed doesn't follow it," Ehsani says. "A naturally high-fiber diet is very nutritious, and is most often rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains."
Foods naturally high in fiber also contain other important nutrients that should be included in a balanced, healthy meal plan, Shaw adds, such as many vitamins and minerals that help our bodies perform at their peak.
The Bottom Line
A low-residue diet is strictly prescribed to people with certain conditions or disease and is meant to be a short-term dietary intervention to help manage symptoms. Don't try this at home unless you're instructed to do so by a registered dietitian or medical doctor, Ehsani says.
If you are given a low-residue diet as your Rx, "work with a registered dietitian to ensure you are getting the nutrition you need to help whatever health goal or condition you're trying to achieve or improve," Shaw adds. They can also guide you to when you've reached a safe space to begin slowly incorporating more fiber into your diet. When that time arrives, here are 7 ways to add 5 grams of fiber to your meals.