Certain foods can help treat constipation, a common condition marked by infrequent bowel movements. On the other hand, some foods or dietary habits can worsen constipation or increase your constipation risk. Although constipation may require medical treatment in some cases, most people can ease constipation by making lifestyle changes and choosing the right foods.
1) Fiber-Rich Foods
Following a diet high in fiber-rich foods helps protect against constipation, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). By consuming 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily, you can help your digestive system to form soft, bulky stool that is easy to pass. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends slowly increasing your intake of high-fiber foods in order to prevent bloating, cramping, and gas.
Foods high in fiber include whole grains (such as brown rice, barley, and quinoa), certain vegetables and fruits (especially dried fruits), flaxseed, and legumes (such as beans and lentils). Here's a look at the amount of fiber found in specific foods that may help with constipation:
- navy beans (9.5 grams of fiber per ½ cup)
- kidney beans (8.2 grams of fiber per ½ cup)
- pinto beans (7.7 grams of fiber per ½ cup)
- artichokes (6.5 per artichoke)
- sweet potatoes (4.8 grams in one medium sweet potato)
- pears (4.4 grams in one small pear)
- green peas (4.4 grams per ½ cup)
- raspberries (4 grams per ½ cup)
- prunes (3.8 grams per ½ cup)
- apples (3.3 grams in one medium apple)
People with a sensitivity to gluten should opt for vegetables and fruit, quinoa, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and brown rice, and avoid grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. Oats are acceptable as long as they are certified gluten-free.
When increasing your intake of high-fiber foods, it's important to drink plenty of fluids. Liquids help the body to digest fiber, and provide constipation relief by adding bulk to stools (which makes bowel movements easier). Aim for eight glasses of water per day.
2) Magnesium-Rich Foods
There's some evidence that running low on magnesium may increase your constipation risk. For instance, a 2007 study of 3,835 women (published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition) found that those with the lowest magnesium intake were the most likely to experience constipation.
Adult males ages 19 to 30 need 400 mg of magnesium daily, while men ages 31 and up need 420 mg. Adult females ages 19 to 30 need 310 mg daily, and women ages 31 and up need 320 mg.
Here's a list of magnesium-rich foods that may help fight constipation:
- almonds (80 mg of magnesium per ounce)
- cashews (75 mg of magnesium per ounce)
- cooked spinach (75 mg of magnesium per ½ cup)
- shredded wheat cereal (55 mg of magnesium in two rectangular biscuits)
- fortified instant oatmeal prepared with water (55 mg of magnesium per cup)
- baked potato with skin (50 mg of magnesium in one medium potato)
- peanuts (50 mg of magnesium per ounce)
- cooked lentils (35 mg of magnesium per ½ cup)
- smooth peanut butter (25 mg of magnesium per tablespoon)
Foods to Avoid for Constipation Relief
Cutting back on refined, processed grains (such as white rice, white bread, and white pasta) and replacing them with whole grains can boost your fiber intake and protect against constipation.
Reducing your intake of fatty foods (including cheese, ice cream, and meats) may also decrease your constipation risk. In addition, it's important to limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine-containing beverages (such as coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks). These foods can cause dehydration, which may in turn trigger constipation.
When Should You Use Foods to Fight Constipation?
To treat constipation effectively, it's important to combine a diet high in fiber-rich foods with certain lifestyle changes (such as regular exercise and adequate intake of fluids). In some cases, people may also require further treatment (such as herbal or prescription laxatives or biofeedback). If foods and lifestyle changes alone fail to relieve your constipation, talk to your doctor about other treatment options.
American Academy of Family Physicians. "Fiber: How to Increase the Amount in Your Diet". December 2010.
Murakami K, Sasaki S, Okubo H, Takahashi Y, Hosoi Y, Itabashi M; Freshmen in Dietetic Courses Study II Group. "Association between dietary fiber, water and magnesium intake and functional constipation among young Japanese women." Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;61(5):616-22.
Murakami K, Sasakii S, Okubo H, Takahashi Y, Hoso Y, Itabashi M; Freshmen in Dietetic Courses Study II Group. "Food intake and functional constipation: a cross-sectional study of 3,835 Japanese women aged 18-20 years." J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2007 Feb;53(1):30-6.
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "Constipation". NIH Publication No. 07–2754. July 2007.
Office of Dietary Supplements. "Magnesium". Last accessed June 2011.