Foods for Constipation
If you are experiencing constipation ― difficult or infrequent bowel movements ― what you eat can make a difference. Certain foods can help bring about relief, while others can make the problem worse.
Emma Slattery, a clinical dietitian at Johns Hopkins Medicine, provides insights on foods that help with constipation and foods to avoid when constipated.
Diet and Constipation
Constipation can be occasional or chronic, and causes range from a sedentary lifestyle to gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. But in almost every case of constipation, food is an important factor.
According to Slattery, fiber is a major component of foods that relieve constipation, and of poop itself. She notes that in addition to adding bulk to the stool, fiber and high-fiber recipes provide other digestive benefits:
- Fiber supports the microbiome: the healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive tract.
- Fiber also helps gut motility: the coordination of muscle contractions in the intestines that push food along the digestive process.
Foods High in Fiber
Slattery explains that there are two types of fiber found in food: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Foods rich in one or both kinds can relieve both occasional and chronic constipation.
“Insoluble fiber is what we think of as roughage. This is the material from food that your body cannot break down in digestion,” she says. “It leaves the body pretty much as it goes in.”
Foods high in insoluble fiber include:
- Skins and seeds of fruits and vegetables
- Leafy greens
- Dried fruit
Soluble fiber, on the other hand, is a type of fiber that dissolves in water. “When dissolved in water in the digestive tract, soluble fiber forms a gel that adds bulk. The gel also acts as a natural stool softener, making bowel movements easier and more comfortable to pass,” Slattery says.
Soluble fiber can be found in:
- Whole grains
- Cooked vegetables
Some of the recommended foods for constipation include both types of fiber. For example, potatoes and apples have soluble fiber inside, and insoluble fiber in the outer skin.
Eat more fiber to relieve constipation.
If you’re dealing with occasional constipation, upping your fiber intake for a few days to get back onto a more normal-for-you bowel movement schedule can be sufficient.
For chronic constipation, Slattery suggests consulting with a dietitian who can help you create a more fiber-rich, long-term eating plan. She recommends working up to 25–30 grams of fiber a day for women and 30–38 grams for men.
Increase fiber gradually.
But, she advises, when making dietary changes, easy does it.
“If you are used to eating a diet low in fiber, incorporating a lot of fiber all at once can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, cramping or bloating to actually worsen. The goal is to gradually add in more high-fiber foods so your digestive system has a chance to acclimate.”
Are there foods that make you poop instantly?
Slattery says prunes and prune juice live up to their reputation as foods to help constipation due to a unique ingredient.
“In addition to fiber, prunes are rich in a naturally occurring sugar alcohol called sorbitol,” she explains. “Sorbitol molecules do not break down in digestion, and when they reach the colon, the body wants to get rid of them, and the reaction can result in a bowel movement.”
Slattery says apple juice also contains sorbitol, but in lower amounts. “For people who don’t like prunes or prune juice, apple juice can be an alternative.”
What else helps with constipation? Natural Laxatives, Water and More
In addition to increasing fiber, Slattery recommends some other strategies.
Sip a hot beverage.
People who want fast constipation relief can also try drinking hot beverages, especially caffeinated ones like coffee or regular tea. “The temperature of the liquid can speed up digestive motility, and caffeine stimulates the bowels as well,” Slattery says.
Use caution with natural laxatives.
Commercially available constipation supplements with psyllium husks or guar gum, when used occasionally and as directed, are safe for most people. But she recommends using caution when considering other herbal supplements, pills, powders or laxative “teas,” especially for long-term use.
“Some of the so-called ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ constipation remedies are poorly researched and regulated,” she notes. “Some can cause diarrhea, cramping, bloating and even more serious digestive problems.”
Drink more water for constipation.
She also stresses the importance of adequate hydration. Water is essential to helping fiber work its magic.
“The large intestine draws water out of the stool before it’s passed out of the body. So if you are dehydrated due to exercise, hot weather, a medical condition or just not drinking enough water, you can end up with hard, dried-out stool that is more difficult to pass.
“As you increase your dietary fiber, it’s important to increase your hydration at the same time,” she advises.
Can exercise help constipation?
“Absolutely yes,” says Slattery. “Physical activity is essential. Even if you do not feel like exercising because you are constipated and bloated, moving your body will help you move your bowels.”
Foods to Avoid When Constipated
High-fat foods ― those rich in oil, butter and grease ― can contribute to constipation.
If you are chronically constipated, overeating fried food, processed meats, commercially baked goods and other high-fat items may be responsible. Slattery cites cheese as a particular constipation culprit.
“Really high-fat foods slow down digestion,” she says. “Fats are tricky to digest, and take a long time for the body to break down. Also, most high-fat foods are low in fiber and delay motility.”
Q & A: Diet and Constipation
Q. If someone is constipated, does it matter when they eat?
A. “There is not much research around this. But, we know the process of eating stimulates the digestive system end to end, so at least theoretically, keeping a regular daily meal schedule could support regular bowel movements.”
Q. Are there particular diets that cause constipation?
A. “The keto diet, with its high levels of fat, can definitely cause constipation. If you are on a ketogenic diet for health reasons and become constipated, work with a dietitian or doctor to balance your dietary needs with some low-carb fiber sources, such as leafy greens.
“The BRAT diet ― bananas, rice, applesauce and toast ― is one we recommend for a range of digestive issues, and it can help with both constipation and diarrhea.
“Intermittent fasting can have variable effects on bowel movement regularity since there are so many different schedules to choose from.”
If you have questions about constipation and diet or any other aspect of nutrition and how it might affect your health, consult a clinical dietitian or a doctor.
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