What you eat (or don’t) plays a big role in constipation. Try these six foods to get things moving again.
If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume you’ve dealt with constipation. And you’re in good company. According to research in American Family Physician, constipation is responsible for 2.5 million doctor visits each year, with people over 65 accounting for the greatest number of appointments.
Put simply, constipation is the inability to empty your bowels fully or on a regular basis. It’s hard to provide one universal definition because what’s “normal” in terms of bowel movements varies from person to person. But generally having fewer than three bowel movements per week is a sign of constipation.
This can make you feel uncomfortable, to say the least. But left unresolved, constipation can lead to decreased appetite, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, diverticulitis, or stress urinary incontinence, says Becky Kerkenbush, M.S., R.D. Kerkenbush is a clinical dietitian at Watertown Regional Medical Center in Wisconsin and president of the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In other words, it’s worth taking seriously.
While different things may cause constipation in different people — including stress, lack of exercise, medications, or underlying health conditions — the origin is often dietary-based. That’s why Kerkenbush recommends taking steps such as boosting your fiber and fluid intake as a first line of defense.
If you have chronic constipation, meaning your problems last longer than three months, talk to your doctor about the best treatment options. For shorter-term backups and to keep things running smoothly, think about adding these foods to your daily menu.
Best Food for Constipation #1: Rye Bread
If you’re a sandwich eater, stuff your ingredients between slices of hearty rye bread. A study in The Journal of Nutrition found that people dealing with constipation who ate rye bread daily experienced more relief than those who ate the same amount of white wheat bread. In some cases, the rye worked even better than commonly used laxatives.
“Rye bread can help alleviate constipation because of its higher fiber content compared to white wheat bread, which has minimal fiber,” says Katie Dodd, M.S., R.D.N. Dodd is a blogger at The Geriatric Dietitian, based in Medford, Oregon.
It’s no secret that a diet low in fiber can lead to a sluggish digestive tract. But exactly how fiber helps isn’t as well-known.
“Foods like rye that are rich in fiber add bulk to the stool to enhance its movement through the digestive system,” Dodd explains. There might also be something special about rye in particular that has a positive impact on the GI system, she adds.
One more reason to choose a rye loaf: It might help you lose weight, if that’s something you’re working on. A recent study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that overweight people who ate high-fiber products made from whole-grain rye as part of a calorie-controlled diet lost more body fat and overall weight over three months than those who ate products with the same number of calories made from refined wheat.
Look for brands that list whole rye flour or whole rye meal as the first ingredient. Many loaves in the supermarket are rye bread impostors and contain mostly lower-fiber refined wheat flour. True rye bread is also dense, so the hefty weight of the loaf is a good indication you’re getting the real stuff.
Best Food for Constipation #2: Prunes
No surprise here, but a list of foods for constipation would not be complete without prunes, aka dried plums. Case in point: One research review found that eating prunes daily can increase stool frequency and soften consistency in constipated people even better than psyllium fiber supplements. In the study, people ate about 10 prunes (100 grams) each day for three weeks.
“Prunes likely help to treat constipation because they’re high in fiber and sorbitol,” Dodd says. “Sorbitol is a type of indigestible sugar that pulls water into the bowel to help things flow through easier.” This gives the delicious dried fruit its natural laxative properties.
Smooth digestion isn’t the only reason to add prunes to your grocery list. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that people who regularly eat dried fruits such as prunes (about one-quarter cup daily) have better overall diet quality and higher intake of important nutrients such as potassium and fiber, compared to those who don’t consume dried fruit.
A handful of dried prunes is a good snack on its own, but you can also chop them and add to oatmeal, yogurt, or cottage cheese. Prunes are also a great replacement for some of the added sugar and fat in baked goods. Simply place one cup of dried, pitted prunes in a bowl, cover with water, and let soak for a couple of hours. Drain and blend the rehydrated prunes in a food processor into a smooth puree. Use the puree in place of half the sugar and fat (oil or butter) in recipes for treats such as brownies and muffins.
Best Food for Constipation #3: Kefir
You’ll find this fermented milk product in the yogurt aisle. If you’re seeking relief from constipation, it’s worth adding to your cart. An investigation in the Turkish Journal of Gastroenterology found that eating two cups of kefir per day for four weeks helped people with constipation get some relief.
“Fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut contain healthy bacteria —known as probiotics — that can enhance the gut microbiome and help regulate digestive health,” Kerkenbush says.
Even better, pair your probiotics with rye bread. Eating fiber-rich rye bread alongside a probiotic-rich yogurt helps relieve gastrointestinal complaints that come with increased fiber intake, such as bloating and abdominal pain. That’s according to research in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It’s worth noting that kefir typically has a broader variety of these gut-friendly microorganisms than yogurt.
With a consistency between milk and yogurt, you can drink kefir straight from a glass, blend it into smoothies, or add it to a bowl of cereal. You can also whisk plain kefir into a creamy dressing. Just beware that some flavored kefirs sneak in a lot of added sugars. Your best bet is to choose a plain variety and add healthier sweeteners such as fiber-rich fruit.
Best Food for Constipation #4: Kiwi
If you’re not a fan of prunes, kiwi is another fruit that can help get things moving.
According to a 2021 paper in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, people with chronic constipation (defined here as fewer than three bowel movements per week) who were given two kiwi fruit, 100 grams of prunes, or a psyllium fiber supplement each day all experienced relief. However, those in the kiwi group were more satisfied with the treatment overall and reported fewer unpleasant side-effects such as bloating, compared to those who got prunes or psyllium.
Researchers are still exploring exactly why kiwis help with constipation, but Dodd says the fruit’s fiber (2 grams in an average kiwi) and high water content both likely play a role.
You can slice kiwi in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon or chop it and add to cereal, yogurt, salads, and chunky salsas. You can also blend whole kiwi, skin and all, into smoothies. The thin skin of kiwi is very much edible and will increase the fiber content of your diet even more.
Best Food for Constipation #5: Jerusalem Artichoke
Also known as a sunchoke, this veggie from the sunflower family is an important source of a unique type of fiber known as inulin.
Inulin is a prebiotic, which is a nondigestible food ingredient that helps stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, Kerkenbush explains. This promotes better overall digestive health.
One research review on inulin and constipation found that inulin increases stool frequency, improves its consistency, and decreases gut transit time. More research is needed to determine the most effective dose and whether certain prebiotic-containing foods are more impactful than others.
Beyond Jerusalem artichokes, sources of inulin and other prebiotic fibers include:
- Green (aka underripe) bananas
Whichever you try, it’s important to introduce prebiotics into your diet gradually, Kerkenbush says. “Inulin fibers should be consumed in moderation since too much too fast may lead to gas and abdominal pain,” she says. If you haven’t been eating much fiber, “start by increasing your total fiber intake by 2 or 3 grams per day.”
Best Food for Constipation #6: Chia Seeds
These tiny seeds are one of the most fiber-dense foods you can eat. Just 1 ounce (or about 2½ tablespoons) of chia seeds contains nearly 10 grams of fiber. Daily fiber goals for women and men over the age of 50 are 21 and 30 grams, respectively, so that gets you well on your way!
What’s more, chia seeds provide insoluble and soluble fiber, which are both important for the prevention and treatment of constipation, Kerkenbush says. “Soluble fiber absorbs water and binds with fatty acids to create a gel-like substance that keeps stools soft and easier to pass,” she explains. “Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, so it gives moisture and substance [bulk] to stools.”
Chia seeds are incredibly versatile and can be added to many foods with little effort. Try sprinkling them onto cereal, oats, or yogurt, adding them to smoothies, or mixing them into salad dressings or baked goods.
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