Although constipation can be unpleasant, experiencing the opposite can also be a problem. Loose stools can be paired with uncomfortable symptoms like bloating and cramps. Your food choices, though, can often help. Here's what to eat, along with what to avoid, to give your stools more bulk.
Why Stools Become Loose
Having loose, watery stools and possibly having bowel movements more often are a common problem, one that falls under the category of diarrhea, according to the Mayo Clinic. Though usually short-lived, lasting no more than a few days, it can become unpleasant when accompanied by other symptoms like abdominal cramps, bloating and nausea.
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Short-term diarrhea can have a range of causes, including food allergies and food intolerances or a bad reaction to foods with high fat content, sweeteners or dairy products, says Colleen Christensen, RDN, a dietitian/nutritionist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even some foods you may think of as healthy could be a culprit. For example, the skins of fruit or wheat can cause some people to experience problems, she adds.
If loose stools are paired with intense symptoms like nausea, fever, body aches, headache and vomiting, you could have norovirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also called acute gastroenteritis, this can cause you to have diarrhea several times a day. However, even norovirus should last only a few days.
Foods to Try
When you're ready for a stool-firming diet, focus on soluble fiber, Christensen suggests. "This is very important because this type of fiber can absorb some of the liquid of loose stools, bulking them up," she says.
Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, lentils and some fruits and vegetables, such as carrots and apples, says Christensen. According to Mayo Clinic, this type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material that helps increase the weight, solidity and size of your stool, but without making it difficult to pass.
Also helpful in your food rotation can be bananas, rice, applesauce and toast — usually referred to as the BRAT diet and often used for reducing stomach upset and reducing diarrhea. They can be helpful because they're considered binding, which means that they're starchy and lower in fiber, which can cause stools to bind together better.
Foods to Avoid
Just as some foods can make your situation better, there are others that can exacerbate the issue. These choices can weaken your digestive health, making it more difficult for your system to function optimally, according to Maria Zamarripa, RD, a dietitian in Denver, Colorado.
A diet full of sugar, processed foods, and unhealthy fats can cause bad types of bacteria to multiply in the gut, Zamarripa says, and when there's also a lack of fiber, that can throw you out of balance and cause loose stools. In addition to digestive problems, you may also have increased sugar cravings, bad moods and lack of energy, she says.
You could also experience these effects because of food allergies or intolerances. To find what's triggering your symptoms, the Cleveland Clinic recommends talking with your doctor and perhaps trying an elimination diet. That involves not eating potentially problem foods for several weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time. Keeping a food journal and noticing your reactions to each food could help you find the source of your diarrhea.
See Your Doctor
Because loose stools draw more water out of the body, it's easy to become dehydrated with just a few days of diarrhea, says Christensen. Because of that, be sure to increase your liquid intake with clear, non-carbonated beverages, she suggests. The best choice is water, but you can also consider chicken broth, zero-sugar sports beverages and herbal tea.
Strategies like these should help your stools to become firmer within a few days, says Christensen. However, she adds, the length of time for you to see progress often depends on the root cause of the issue. If you're simply dealing with a food intolerance, switching to these healthier choices should firm up your stools quickly.
If you're still not seeing improvement within a couple days or you have other symptoms, Mayo Clinic suggests talking with your doctor. Working together, you and your doctor can determine if you need to try other tactics, like changing medications, or if your symptoms may be the result of an underlying condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Read more: 11 Foods to Avoid When You Have IBS
- Mayo Clinic: "Diarrhea”
- Colleen Christensen, RDN, dietitian/nutritionist, Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "The Symptoms of Norovirus"
- Maria Zamarripa, RD, dietitian, Denver, Colorado
- Cleveland Clinic: "Find the Source of Your Food Intolerance (and Finally Find Relief)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.