You do not necessarily have to have a bowel movement every day to be healthy, but the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse advises that you should move your bowels when you go to the bathroom at least three times every week. You may be constipated if you pass stool less often or must strain when you try to go to the bathroom. Fiber helps prevent and relieve constipation so you move your bowels normally.
Going to the bathroom is the end of a long, involved bodily process. Digestion starts as you chew your food, mixing it with saliva. Food passes through your esophagus when you swallow and ends up in your stomach, where absorption of nutrients begins. This process continues as the food moves through your small and large intestines. The last part of the large intestine is the colon, where the last nutrients are processed and the food becomes feces, which waits in the rectum to be discharged from your body through the anus when you go to the bathroom.
Fiber does not give you nutrients as it passes through your digestive system, but this tough, indigestible material helps other food move along. Fiber contributes to healthy digestion by making your stool large, soft and moisture-rich, which lets you pass it as easily as possible. Small pieces of dry feces, which are common with constipation, are hard and painful to pass. Eating at least 25 g of fiber per day if you are a woman or 38 g if you are a man prevents this issue, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Lack of fiber is one of the main causes of constipation, but being dehydrated, drinking too much milk or not getting enough physical exercise can also interfere with going to the bathroom. You also potentially cause problems if you ignore the urge to go to the bathroom when you need to have a bowel movement or if you regularly use laxatives instead of natural digestive aids like fiber.
You should ideally get all the fiber you need from your daily meals. Fiber comes in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes, so you can easily include it in every meal. For example, you can eat a high-fiber cereal topped with fruit for breakfast, then have a salad for lunch, vegetables as a side dish for dinner, and nuts as a snack. Pharmacies and retail stores sell fiber supplements if you do not eat enough fiber at mealtimes. These products help you go to the bathroom in the same way as fiber in foods.
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse; Constipation; July 2007
- KidsHealth; Digestive System; May 2010
- Harvard School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source, Fiber
- MedlinePlus: Fiber
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids