Strategic Diets: What to Eat When You’re Constipated

It's time to get things moving again.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

Been a while since you’ve had a good sit on the throne? We’ve all been there. And uncomfortable is an understatement—barely being able to zip your pants over your bloated abdomen is no way to live.

Constipation is defined as having “fewer than three bowel movements a week, and stools that are hard, dry, and small, making them painful or difficult to pass,” according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease.

Your bowel movements can get off track for a number of reasons: not enough fiber or water, stress, lack of exercise, certain medications, and changes to your routine (like traveling) to name a few.

When you are suffering through a bout of constipation, you’ll do pretty much anything for some relief. So turn your attention to your menu. What you do and don’t eat is an important factor in shortening the duration of uncomfortable symptoms and getting your movements back on track.

What to Eat to Get Things Moving

“For constipation relief, I tell my patients to focus on the 3 Fs: Fluid, Fat, Fiber,” advised Erin Palinski Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “Aim to fill your plate with 1/2 produce, 1/4 whole grains, and 1/4 lean protein at each meal with a generous source of unsaturated fat and a large glass of water and you will be well on your way to relief!”

Focus on Liquids 

Upping your fluid intake should be your first mode of attack when constipation hits. “The only way you can solve constipation is to hydrate. Even if you’ve had several glasses of water already, have another!” said Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of Eating In Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family.

Liquids are an important dietary component to keep stool soft and moving through the digestive tract. While fiber helps keep you regular on a daily basis, it won’t be effective if you aren’t drinking enough water.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and becomes a gel-like mass, which slows down the rate at which food leaves your stomach (boosting satiety.) Insoluble fiber doesn’t absorb the liquid, but traps and retains water pulled from your intestine, which adds bulk and moisture to waste, preventing constipation.

“If you increase fiber but fail to increase fluids, this may actually lead to an increase in constipation!” said Erin Palinski-Wade. “So make sure you up your fluid as well. A general rule of thumb for fluid is a minimum of 64 ounces per day and an extra eight ounces for every 1/2 hour of exercise you do.”

And water isn’t your only option, broth-based soups and produce can also add to your water count. Watermelon, strawberries, grapefruit and cantaloupe are extremely high in water content. As are cucumber, lettuce, zucchini, radish, celery and tomato.

Preventing Constipation: Fiber is Key

“You need to make sure you are taking in at least the recommended daily allowance for fiber (between 25-38 grams per day),” said Palinski-Wade. The average person consumes just 15 grams per day.” Fiber helps pull water from your colon, making your stool softer and easier to pass. While getting 25-35 grams of fiber daily is a smart thing to do, “once you’re constipated, fiber may not help solve the issue,” said Largeman-Roth. However, hitting the daily recommendation plays an integral role in preventing constipation in the first place. Some of the best sources include: beans, wheat bran, apples, raspberries, prunes, sweet potato, broccoli and green peas.

The two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, are both important to keeping your digestive system running smoothly. Soluble fiber (the kind that becomes a gel-like mass) helps your stool retain water, which makes it larger, softer and ultimately better able to pass through the intestines. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to waste, which quickens its passage through your intestines helping to prevent constipation.

Sources of soluble fiber: oats and oatmeal, natural applesauce (no added sugar), lentils, pears, flaxseed, barley, and rice. Beans and peas.

Sources of insoluble fiber: whole wheat and wheat bran, nuts, seeds, and raw vegetables. Beans and peas.

Don’t Forget Healthy Fats

“Finally, many constipated individuals know to increase fiber, but they don’t realize the need for dietary fat which essentially lubricates the intestines,” said Palinski-Wade. “Aim for a minimum of 25 to 30 percent of total calories to come from unsaturated, plant-based fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado.”
And don’t necessarily write off dairy. “Dairy often gets a bad rep for constipation and it may hold true in young children and toddlers, however it can also provide a source of fluid and fat that may aid constipation in adults,” said Palinski-Wade.

Use Prunes for Their Sorbitol Content 

“Do give dried plums (aka prunes) or prune juice a try,” said Largeman Roth. “It’s not actually the fiber in prunes that gets things moving, it’s their sorbitol content.” Sorbitol, found naturally in prunes and pears, is a known laxative which works by drawing water into the large intestine.

The compound may get things moving and relieve symptoms: A study published in The American Journal of Medicine found no significant difference in a sorbitol supplement and a prescription laxative in the percent of bowel movements recorded as “normal,” frequency and severity of symptoms such as bloating, cramping, and excessive flatulence, and overall health status.

Magnesium May Help Loosen Things Up

Despite limited scientific studies verifying the positive effects of magnesium on constipation, many physicians still recommend it as a plausible treatment. Plus, the relationship is a reciprocal one since constipation is a symptom of magnesium deficiency.

“I remember using magnesium when I worked in the emergency room … If someone was constipated or needed to prepare for a colonoscopy, we gave them milk of magnesia or a green bottle of liquid magnesium citrate, which emptied their bowels,” wrote Dr Mark Hymen. “Think of magnesium as the relaxation mineral. Anything that is tight, irritable, crampy, and stiff—whether it is a body part or an even a mood—is a sign of magnesium deficiency.”

We can think of more than a few things that are tight and crampy when dealing with constipation. So adding in magnesium-rich foods can’t hurt. Good sources include leafy greens, nuts and seeds, sea vegetables like dulse and kelp, avocado, bananas, and fish like tuna and Mackerel.

What to Avoid

Binding Foods

Certain binding foods should also be limited,” said Palinski-Wade. “Green, unripe bananas can be binding, but ripe bananas are a good source of soluble fiber that may provide relief. White rice may bind, but high fiber brown rice can be a suitable alternative.”

Foods with Little or No Fiber

Skip the processed foods and convenience meals and snacks that contain refined carbs. “In general any nutrient-lacking food such as sweets can be constipating if it replaces a food rich in fiber or plant-based fats,” said Palinski-Wade.

Set Aside Bathroom Time

“Sometimes people become constipated because they just don’t give themselves enough time to relax and use the bathroom,” said Largeman-Roth. “A busy schedule, travel, and taking care of young children (who don’t leave you alone in the bathroom), can all contribute to the issue. Make a date with your toilet when no one else is around, and you just might be able to go.”

Enjoy this one-day meal plan designed to get things moving, then grab a good book and head to the bathroom for some you time.