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, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. 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, D.O., 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.