Approximately 80 percent of people suffer from constipation at some point in their lives, according to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons. Constipation most often refers to infrequent bowel movements, but may also describe a decrease in volume or weight of the stool, or a need to strain when going to the bathroom. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse defines constipation as having fewer than three bowel movements per week. While most cases of constipation are harmless -- and a high fiber diet and increased fluid intake are enough to correct them -- if constipation persists for more than three weeks, contact your doctor.
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Nosh on Fiber
Fiber helps pull water into the intestines, increasing the size and softness of your stool, making it easier to pass. Upping your fiber intake too quickly, however, can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects, such as gas, cramping, abdominal pain and diarrhea. To avoid constipation, Columbia University recommends increasing your fiber intake by 5 to 10 grams per day until you reach the upper limit of 35 grams per day. Dietary sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Raisins and prunes are especially high in fiber, so include these dried fruits in your diet as well. However, keep in mind that dried fruits are also high in sugar, so don't overdo them. Keep your intake of dried fruits to around 1/2 cup per day.
As you increase your fiber intake, increase your water consumption as well. Drinking plenty of fluids helps soften your stool and reduces the risk of experiencing negative side effects from an increased fiber intake. MedlinePlus recommends drinking 8 to 10 cups of fluid per day. The best choices are water and herbal tea. Avoid milk, fruit juices and caffeinated beverages, as milk can make constipation worse -- and while fruit juices and caffeinated beverages might trigger a bowel movement, your body can become dependent on them over time. The University of Washington Medical Center recommends drinking 2 cups of warm water or herbal tea first thing in the morning to get things moving.
Milk Doesn't Always Do a Body Good
Columbia University recommends removing all foods made with cow’s milk, such as milk, cheese and ice cream, from your diet completely when suffering from constipation. Many people have an intolerance to the protein in cow’s milk that causes gastrointestinal problems, including constipation. Substituting soy milk or almond milk for cow’s milk in general may decrease the likelihood of constipation.
Consider Flax and Chia
Ground flaxseed is an annual herb that is high in fiber and easy to add to almost anything. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains almost 3 grams of fiber. In addition to fiber, flaxseed is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Sprinkle flaxseed onto yogurt, salads and your cereal -- or mix it into soups and smoothies. It’s best to buy ground flaxseed -- or buy whole and grind it with a coffee grinder -- as ground flaxseed is easier for your body to digest. Store ground flaxseed in an airtight container in the refrigerator to keep it fresh longer. Chia seeds are even higher in fiber -- offering a whopping 11 grams per ounce. Like flaxseeds, you can sprinkle chia seeds onto salads, add them to yogurt and blend them in smoothies. Unlike flaxseeds, you don't have to grind chia seeds for better digestion.
- Columbia University: Anti-Constipation Diet
- Medline Plus: Constipation - Self-Care
- University of Washington Medical Center: Constipation: Diet Tips for Relief and Prevention
- New England Journal of Medicine: Chronic Constipation? Hold the Milk!
- American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons: Constipation
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Constipation