What to Eat, Drink, and Avoid to Help With Constipation

Doctors and dietitians recommend these tips to keep things moving.

Constipation is a common complaint and an extremely uncomfortable situation. The American Gastroenterological Association defines constipation as "when you have infrequent or hard-to-pass bowel movements (meaning they are painful or you have to strain), have hard stools, or feel like your bowel movements are incomplete." An estimated 63 million Americans complain of some sort of constipation issue, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

We also know that a happy gut is a healthy gut. Although constipation can be linked to more serious medical conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), it's often our diet that is the culprit. The good news is, it's not too difficult to start adding in the foods you need to keep things moving. Give it some time.

"If you can make a consistent lifestyle change for two weeks, you'll likely start to see some changes," says Sanaa Arastu, MD, a gastroenterologist with Austin Gastroenterology. If things aren't changing after two weeks, you'll want to consult your doctor as this could be a sign your body needs more than just a change in diet.

Ready to get regular again? Try these foods (and drinks!) to stop the strain and get your gut health back on track.

01 of 05

Drink Water

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. We all know that drinking enough water is important for so many things, from skin elasticity to flushing out toxins, but it's also key in getting things moving in your digestive system.

"The more water you get, the better it is for the colon," says Dr. Arastu. "If you're dehydrated, your body absorbs water through the colon—that's how you end up with dry, hard stool. If you have enough water in your body, it doesn't need to be taken from the colon."

How much water is the right amount? That depends on a few personal factors. Laura Wilson, RD, a dietitian in New Haven, Conn., uses this formula to estimate how much water you should be drinking each day. "For every calorie you would want to have one cubic centimeter of water: So a 2000 calorie diet means at least 2 liters of water/fluids per day," she says.

Dr. Arastu usually has her patients aim for 2 liters of water per day, knowing that although it may not be attainable for some, people tend to drink more when aiming for a higher number.

Water is also important when we talk about ingesting fiber (which we'll get to in a minute)—without the water, the fiber can't do its job.

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02 of 05

Eat Foods High in Insoluble Fiber

Speaking of fiber, it's often the other puzzle piece needed to get things moving down the track. You'll want to be cognizant of what kind of fiber you're eating, however: Both soluble and insoluble fiber are good for you, but it's insoluble fiber that will really help to alleviate constipation.

"Fiber promotes motility, or movement of food through the digestive tract," says Wilson. You want to aim to get 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day. But be careful, she cautions. "If you're getting too much fiber, you may feel overly bloated, full, or gassy, so start slow with 20 grams the first week and increase from there, making sure your water increases as well."

Where can you get insoluble fiber from food? Naturally, you'll get a lot of insoluble fiber from whole grain bread, cereals, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. (P.S. Here are some more high-fiber foods you can eat.)

Fruits and Veggies

Although some veggies and fruits are higher in fiber than others, don't get too caught up in that, Wilson advises. "Don't focus excessively if an orange is a better source of fiber than an apple—but rather focus on getting five servings of fruit and vegetables every day," she says.

Whole Grains

With breads and grains, make healthy swaps to your typical grain game. Choose whole grain breads, quinoa, oats, and brown rice, and even swap in legumes for meat every now and then to keep you more regular.

Beans

Beans are a fantastic source of fiber, too, like pinto beans, black beans, and kidney beans. But just be wary of eating too much at once, as they can cause bloating and gassiness.

If you are looking at anything packaged like cereals or bars, "anything that has 3 or more grams of dietary fiber per serving on the box is pretty good," Dr. Arastu says. She recommends some of the FiberOne products if you do need a packaged option.

03 of 05

Eat Foods With Natural Sorbitol

There's a reason why grandma always told you to drink prune juice or eat a few prunes if you were constipated. It's because prunes contain sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that's naturally in certain foods.

Note that you'll want to avoid anything where sorbitol is an additive; and too much sorbitol can cause diarrhea. But you may need some in moderation to give your system a much-need push.

"[It's a natural way to get a bit of a laxative effect," Dr. Arastu says of foods containing natural sorbitol. You can get your fix from fruits such as:

  • pears
  • prunes
  • apples
  • cherries
  • apricots
  • peaches
  • nectarines

Each has both fiber and sorbitol. It naturally occurs in berries, like raspberries and strawberries, too.

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04 of 05

Curb Meat and Dairy Consumption

When Dr. Arastu has patients complain of constipation, she often has them eliminate dairy for two-weeks to see if anything changes. "Both meat and dairy consumption can often cause constipation," adds Wilson. You don't need to completely eliminate these foods, as they're a good source of protein, but you should be cognizant of how much you digest.

You can either try to replace animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins altogether (at least at a few meals per week). Or even just reduce the amount of meat and dairy on your plate and supplement with other plant sources of protein to stay full (with the added bonus of more fiber!).

05 of 05

Consider How You Eat

Sometimes it's not what we eat, but how we eat it. People are busy and we are often on the go with our food. Sometimes we make convenient, but not nutritious food choices.

Pack snacks like trail mix with nuts and dried fruit or popcorn. And don't forget to chew your food slowly and thoroughly (it should be liquid when you swallow it!).

It's just as important to eat regularly, too. "Eat frequently and don't skip meals—it slows motility," says Wilson. "When we consume a meal or snack it stimulates peristalsis—allowing food to move through the digestive tract."

RELATED: The Many Pros of Probiotics and How They Affect Your Health

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Sources
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  1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Digestive disease statistics for the United States: chronic constipation. Date Accessed May 12, 2022.

  2. UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. Constipation. Date Accessed May 12, 2022.

  3. UCSF Health. Patient education: constipation. Date Accessed May 12, 2022.

  4. UC San Diego Health. Gastrointestinal motility and physiology. Date Accessed May 12, 2022.

  5. Wang DD, Li Y, Bhupathiraju SN, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies of US men and women and analysis of 26 cohort studies. Circulation. 2021;143(17):1642-1654. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048996

  6. USDA. Dietary guidelines for Americans: food sources of dietary fiber. Date Accessed May 12, 2022.

  7. Liauw S, Saibil F. Sorbitol: Often forgotten cause of osmotic diarrhea. Can Fam Physician. 2019;65(8):557-558.

  8. PubChem. Compound summary: sorbitol. Date Accessed May 12, 2022.

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