Eating the wrong types of food now can have painful consequences later on if you have constipation. Fortunately, you can take control of your hard stool. With a few simple tweaks to your diet, you can decrease your chances of dealing with this annoying issue.
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Avoiding foods with dairy, caffeine, added sugar or ultra-processed ingredients is the best way to rid yourself of hard stools.
What Causes Constipation?
Constipation, or having fewer than three bowel movements per week, can be caused by several different things. According to the Mayo Clinic, it typically occurs when stool moves through the digestive tract too slowly and becomes hard. In the case of intermittent constipation like this, the most likely culprit is a poor diet.
While constipation is usually temporary, some people deal with it on a regular basis. This may happen because they have difficulty activating or relaxing the muscles involved in elimination. Others may struggle with certain conditions (like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease) that affect the nerves around the colon and rectum, which help pass stool.
Read more: Causes of Stomach Pain, Nausea and Dizziness
Hormonal imbalances caused by conditions like diabetes or pregnancy, prescription medications or (in much rarer cases) a blockage caused by cancer in the colon, rectum or abdomen might also be to blame. Luckily, for most people with constipation, simply avoiding the foods that cause this issue can help decrease the likelihood of developing hard stool.
Prioritize Fresh Foods
Pre-packaged meals and microwave dinners are a staple of many Americans' diets, as they are both cheap and time-efficient. What many people don't realize, however, is that they may be one of the causes of constipation.
These types of meals are typically very low in fiber and high in sodium, fat and preservatives (all of which can slow down your digestive system). The same can be said of refined foods like white bread or white rice, which have their fiber removed during processing.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends eating fresh, whole-grain foods that contain large amounts of fiber. These may include whole-grain bread, cereals with bran flakes, pasta made from 100 percent whole grains, or oatmeal. Berries, apples with the skin on, oranges and skin-on pears are also good choices.
Read more: Cut Refined Sugar: Here's How to Get Started
Other high-fiber options include nuts, legumes like beans or lentils and vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli or collard greens. Adding in as many of these foods to your diet as possible can help you avoid developing hard stool.
Go Easy on the Coffee
While coffee can stimulate the digestive muscles that cause you to pass stool, it's not a miracle cure for constipation symptoms. That's because too much caffeine may cause dehydration, leading to a painful and hard stool. Because of this, it is best to avoid excessive amounts of food and liquids containing caffeine, including coffee, teas, soft drinks and chocolate.
According to a December 2012 review published in Nursing, it's best to focus on increasing your non-caffeinated fluid intake to improve your ability to pass stool without pain. They suggest trying to drink 60 to 80 ounces (1.8 to 2.4 liters) of water throughout the day.
To increase your water intake, keep a bottle on your desk at work or in the car to remind you to consistently take in fluids. For the more technologically-savvy drinkers, several water drinking apps can track fluid intake and send alerts.
Skip the Dairy
Drinking a cup of milk or eating yogurt with lunch may seem like a healthy choice. Unfortunately, dairy is also on the list of foods that may cause constipation.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, dairy-containing foods like milk, cheese, yogurt or ice cream may contribute to the bloating and difficulty passing stool that you're experiencing. This is because the lactose in dairy causes gas to build up in the digestive tract, slowing the movement of food through it.
Try to avoid dairy-induced constipation by making substitutes whenever possible. Nut-based drinks like almond milk or cashew milk can replace cow's and goat's milk. You may also use soy products instead of cheese and even meat. Nutritional yeast is a good substitute for Parmesan.
Many national food brands have also launched non-dairy varieties of yogurt and ice cream. Beware, however, that many of these products are chock-full of sugar and chemicals. Always check the labels and consume such foods in moderation.
Cut Out the Sugar
Speaking of the "S" word, eating excessive amounts of sugar in your diet is a common cause of constipation symptoms. According to an April 2019 review published by the Center for Young Women's Health, eating a diet that is high in foods with added sugar may worsen constipation. Unfortunately, avoiding this common food ingredient is often easier said than done.
While large amounts of sugar are present in obvious foods like cookies, pastries and candy, it can also be hidden in other products that may surprise you. Be sure to take a close look at the nutrition label before buying your favorite cereal, granola bar or salad dressing as they commonly contain large amounts of sugar.
The same is true for other items like pasta sauces or instant oatmeal. Instead, try satisfying your sweet tooth with foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars. Fruits, applesauce (without added sugar) or natural peanut butter are healthy choices.
When to Call Your Doctor
Making simple modifications to your diet and avoiding foods that cause constipation is often enough to stop you from getting a hard stool. However, in certain cases, further action is needed to address this issue. If constipation symptoms don't subside after making dietary changes or you're experiencing feelings of a blockage in your rectum, difficulty completely voiding stool from your body or painful bloating, it's important to contact your physician.
In these situations, the Mayo Clinic reports that further evaluation may be necessary to properly treat your condition. This could include a rectal or colon exam, blood tests, imaging (like an X-ray, MRI or colonoscopy) or testing the function of your digestive muscles.
Following this, interventions like prescription medication, laxatives or specific training exercises for your pelvic muscles may also be recommended. In rare cases, surgery may be required to address constipation. Regardless, the first step is to seek help from a qualified specialist.
- Mayo Clinic: “Constipation”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Constipation in Children”
- Nursing: “Preventing, Assessing, and Managing Conspitation in Older Adults”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Bloating”
- Center for Young Women’s Health: “Constipation”