Constipated? Try These Foods to Keep Things Moving

You've got your goals in sight and you've made an action plan to reach them. Exercise has become your friend (or at least not your enemy), you've pretty much got this food prep thing down and you're no longer on a first-name basis with the pizza delivery guy. Everything is moving right along toward where you want to be.

Well, almost everything.

While you've been doing pretty well at controlling what goes into your body, it might seem that you don't have as much control of what comes out of it (or when). Sluggish digestion can become a big obstacle (literally) when adopting new nutritional habits.

And regular bowel movements also promote overall health and wellness, says Lisa Cooper, MS, RD, LDN at Orlando Health Central Hospital. "Besides moving impurities out of the body, stools also remove excess estrogen and bile acids, which could lower the risk of breast and colon cancers," she notes. "Some studies indicate that women who move their bowels more often have a lower risk of breast cancer."

So what to do if you find things slowing down in the elimination department?
 

The Ins and Outs of Constipation


The digestive process can seem like a big mystery, but there's a reason behind each movement (or lack thereof). After digesting food, waste forms and—in an ideal world—moves smoothly through the digestive tract. But sometimes that waste moves more slowly, which causes too much water to be absorbed into the gut, resulting in a hard, dry stool that is difficult to pass, explains Cooper.

What causes the slowdown? Cooper says there are many possible culprits: "Dehydration, inadequate fluid intake, change in diet, a low-fiber diet, inactivity and some medications and supplements (like calcium or iron), can contribute to poor stool consistency and decreased speed of movement through the intestines."

Dr. Yami Cazorla-Lancaster, a board-certified pediatrician and founder of Veggie Fit Kids, adds that a diet that is high in processed foods and animal products, as well as low in fiber, can also cause a tummy tie-up.

While constipation can be stressful and uncomfortable, it can also have more serious ramifications over time. Cooper warns that being "backed up" over a prolonged period may result in swollen and inflamed veins called hemorrhoids. And, although rare, severe cases could cause fecal impaction, where the waste cannot be pushed out of the body. "Other serious side effects include small tears in the anus [that can] cause itching, pain or bleeding (anal fissure) or rectal prolapse," she adds.
 

How Diet Impacts Constipation


Some simple dietary changes can help to improve both bowel frequency and volume. Cooper is a big advocate of plant-based diets as a means of improving transit time and gut health by boosting fiber, improving bowel status and preventing constipation.

Dr. Yami blames fiber deficiency as the main cause of constipation and irregularity in the United States—especially with the current popularity of low-carb, high-fat diets. She recommends increased fiber consumption as the best way to treat constipation and also to decrease the risk of chronic disease. But not all fiber is the same. Dr. Yami explains that there are two types: soluble and insoluble. "Insoluble fiber is what creates the 'roughage' that cleans out the colon," she says.

When it comes to fiber, it's important to remember that a little goes a long way, says Alan Gingold, DO, gastroenterologist at Digestive Healthcare Center. "Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day," he recommends. "And if you increase your fiber but don't increase your water intake, then you can become more constipated."
 

Foods & Drinks to Get Things Moving


There are some individual foods you can add to your daily diet to help ensure a healthy digestive flow.

  • Beans: Dr. Yami recommends beans as the best source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. One serving contains about seven grams of fiber.

  • Legumes: This group includes foods like peas, lentils and nuts.

  • Oatmeal: As a whole, intact grain, oatmeal is a good source of both types of fiber.

  • Water: Water is perhaps one of the most underrated means of preventing constipation. "When you're adequately hydrated, less water is drawn out of the colon, making it easier for you to pass a bowel movement," explains Chelsey Amer of Chelsey Amer Nutrition. "As much as fiber-filled foods help prevent constipation, you must pair them with water to ensure that waste can pass through your bowels easily."

  • Whole grains: Amer points out that these are a good source of insoluble fiber. "Insoluble fiber provides bulk to your stool, which helps sweep your colon clean," she explains. "Look for at least three to four grams per serving."

  • Dried plums/prunes: Cooper says these help to improve constipation through the action of sorbitol, which irritates the gastrointestinal tract. "Eating prunes has been shown to increase stool frequency and softness," she adds. When her patients are in a bind, Dr. Yami sometimes recommends trying prunes or prune juice, which contain fiber as well as a cathartic agent that can stimulate bowel movements.

  • Fruits: Jess Cifelli, nutritionist and master CycleStar at CycleBar, says that fruits—particularly blackberries, apples, raspberries and pears—promote healthy digestion. "Besides the water that is found in fruits, the fiber helps keep constipation at bay," she says.

  • Vegetables: "Veggies like carrots, spinach and broccoli are all high in fiber," says Dr. Gingold.

  • Probiotics: "These contain live microorganisms and can improve the balance of good bacteria in the gut," Cooper explains. Probiotics can be found in products like yogurt, kefir and fermented foods such as miso and sauerkraut.

  • Chamomile tea: Samantha Morrison, health and wellness expert for Glacier Wellness, recommends drinking chamomile tea as a natural and enjoyable way to fight bloating. "Chamomile, and tea in general, relaxes the GI muscles, which enables the digestive system to release gas and unnecessary waste, ultimately eliminating stomach cramps and bloating," she explains. "Similarly, tea is a highly effective diuretic, which triggers the urinary system to get rid of extra fluids and salt."

  • Prebiotics: These are fibers that increase the growth or activity of healthy gut bacteria. Cooper says they are naturally found in a variety of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, such as beets, turnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, apples, oats, barley, jicama root, broccoli and cauliflower.

  • Popcorn: In addition to being a great-tasting, low-calorie snacking option, popcorn also adds more fiber to your diet. "Three cups of air-popped popcorn have only 100 calories, but four grams of fiber," Cifelli notes. "Just be sure to skip the extra salt and butter."

  • Chia or flax seed: Dr. Gingold recommends these as an easy way to add fiber to the diet. Try sprinkling them into yogurt, or consume foods that already contain the seeds.

  • Rhubarb: Morrison says these perennial vegetables offer many health benefits. "In addition to helping promote weight loss, rhubarb is one of the oldest natural constipation remedies," she says. "Rhubarb works to ease constipation by regulating the digestive and circulatory systems, effectively making your body run more smoothly."

Foods to Avoid


If constipation is an issue, Dr. Gingold says you might want to moderate your consumption of the following foods:

  • Bananas: In particular, green, non-ripe bananas are very fibrous and full of starch, which is difficult to digest.

  • White breads, pastas, rice and tortillas: These are refined grains and have had much of the fiber removed.

  • Red meat: This is high in iron and fat, which tends to be constipating. Although red meat contains a lot of protein, it provides no fiber.

  • Alcohol and caffeine: These are both stimulants and can cause excessive urination and fluid loss, which can lead to constipation.

  • Calcium: The molecules are binding, which can cause constipation in some people when a lot is consumed.

Keep in mind that anytime you change your eating habits—even when it's in a positive, healthy way—the body can initially respond with a slowdown in bowel movements. Give your digestive system a couple of weeks to adapt to the changes. Over time, with regular exercise, plenty of water intake and a well-balanced diet with the right combination of fiber, healthy fat and lean protein, you should eventually see an uptick in the frequency and quality of your bathroom visits. But if the constipation continues, it’s best to see a doctor to rule out any medical causes.

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Member Comments

Informative...tha
nk you Report
I'm sorry if I'm giving too much info. My bowel has fallen asleep 3 times over the past 7 years. I exercise and consume a clean diet. I went to a GI doctor and he told me that it could be neurologic. Meaning, my brain isn't telling me to pass a stool. I drink Miralax at breakfast and take a laxative. Talk to your doctor. He may be able to shed light on your problems. Report
Water, exercise and green veg work for me! Report
Good information but I have to chime in here . . . this may be a bit of an overgeneralizatio
n. While it might be a good place to start, don't take it as an absolute until you see how it works with your system.

Foods do not affect all people the same. For instance, what gets my husband 'moving' is a 'stopper' for me.

Best way to learn how your body handles different foods is to track everything (food and liquid) for a period of time, recording cause and effects.

Find what works for you and hang on to it for dear life. Report
Okay, the banana thing kills me. Thank you, I'm positive this information will be very helpful. Report
Love it Report
Thanks. Report
thanks! Report
thanks Report
PLCHAPPELL
Good nutrition and exercise are our friends. Report
Thanks Report
Thanks for an informative article. Report
Thank you Report
Nuts works for me Report
Everyone is different- bananas don't constipate not even the green ones. A lot of people are chronically dehydrated which causes the fibre to not work as well as it should. Report


 

About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.