What to eat when constipated
Constipation affects most of us from time to time, but what you eat can help to relieve it and keep it away. Our guest expert nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr shares the 9 best foods to include in your diet to get your gut moving again.
Everyone has different bowel habits, but if you’re constipated, you usually poo less than 3 times a week and strain to push out poo (stools). You may have dry, lumpy, hard or large stools, feel blocked up, or have a tight, swollen tummy.
For most people, constipation doesn’t last long. But for others, it can be a long-term problem, causing serious pain and affecting their quality of life.
Your diet, lifestyle, stress levels, underlying health conditions and many other factors can add to or trigger constipation. And the foods you do (or don’t) eat may work as natural laxatives that help empty your bowels, or they may make your constipation worse.
Here are the best foods to help ease constipation.
The 9 best foods for constipation
Pulses, like beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas, are great sources of soluble fibre (soft moist fibre usually found in fruit) and insoluble fibre (usually the tougher outer shells of seeds, grains, fruits and vegetables). Fibre helps reduce constipation by bulking out and softening your stool, which, in turn, moves your poo more easily through your gut.
It’s best to introduce pulses into your diet in small quantities – their high fibre content can trigger bloating and farting (flatulence) if you suddenly start to eat a lot of them. Begin by adding half a can of pulses to soups, casseroles or stews, or use them instead of minced meat in dishes like lasagnes.
For some people, adding pulses to their diet works immediately, but for others, it may take a day or 2 for the effect to kick in.
2. Live yoghurt
Live yoghurt contains ‘good’ live bacteria and yeasts, known as probiotics, that may help to relieve constipation. A 2014 study suggests that probiotics can help improve how regularly you poo and may soften your poo.
Another 2014 study suggests that eating yoghurt containing the probiotic bacteria types lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium lactis may help treat constipation, particularly when added to soluble fibre.
So, try adding live yoghurt into your daily diet to support your gut, build up ‘good’ gut bacteria and prevent constipation. But keep in mind that it takes time to build up this gut bacteria, so you may not see results right away.
Read more about how long it takes for probiotics to work.
It’s thought these hairy, juicy fruits may help with constipation because they’re high in fibre and have enzymes that act as natural laxatives. Eat 2 kiwi fruits for breakfast in the morning – you may want to remove the hairy skin, as it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it contains fibre and vitamins too.
4. Wheat bran
Wheat bran is rich in insoluble fibre, which helps to speed up the movement of food waste through your gut. A 2013 study suggests that eating wheat bran breakfast cereals every day for 2 weeks may improve your bowel function and reduce constipation and other digestive problems like bloating.
To help with constipation, add 20 to 25g of wheat bran to your diet every day. You can sprinkle it onto yoghurt, mix it into porridge or add it into a smoothie.
It can take around 24 hours for food to pass through your digestive system, so wait for a few days after introducing wheat bran into your diet to start feeling the benefits.
Read more about the top 10 healthy breakfast foods.
5. Whole grains
Wholegrain versions of breads, flours, pastas and rice have more fibre than processed grains, so:
- swap white rice for brown rice, wild rice or quinoa (read more about the health benefits of quinoa)
- swap white bread for brown/wholemeal bread, like rye or pumpernickel
- swap white pastas for wholemeal pastas
Staying hydrated is essential for many aspects of your health, including your bowel movements. If you don’t have enough water in your diet, there’s a risk that your large intestine (colon) will absorb the water from your food waste, which will harden your poo and make you constipated.
How quickly water can relieve constipation depends on how dehydrated you are. Aim to drink 2 litres of water every day - and use the colour of your pee as a guide to if you need to drink more water. If you’re well hydrated, your pee should be a pale straw colour. If you find drinking water boring, add blueberries, herbs or cucumber for taste.
7. Herbal tea
Certain herbal teas may stimulate your digestive system and relieve digestive problems like constipation. For example, peppermint tea, green tea or black coffee may speed up your bowel movements.
Hot drinks in general can also help ease constipation, as they’re an easy and effective way to get more water into your body.
For some, herbal teas can help instantly, but for others, it may take an hour or so. Try a cup of ginger or peppermint tea after dinner and see if you notice any changes that evening or the next day. Or try hot water with lemon juice first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, as the citrus can stimulate your large intestine.
Read more about the benefits of drinking lemon water.
Prunes and prune juice are popular constipation remedies. They contain a sugar called sorbitol, which can have a natural laxative-like effect for some people.
The whole fruit contains more sorbitol and fibre than the juice, so eating a prune may have a quicker effect on your bowel movements.
But don’t eat a whole bag of prunes, as too many can cause digestive problems like trapped wind (gas) and bloating, diarrhoea and even constipation. Instead, start with a small handful and give it up to 4 hours to see if you notice a difference.
Flaxseed is a good source of insoluble fibre that’s been used as a natural constipation reliever for decades. When flaxseeds are mixed with water, they bind together to create a gel that may help get your bowels moving.
To help with constipation, mix 10g of flaxseed with 150ml of water and drink it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. It can take anywhere between 12 to 24 hours for this to work. For some, it can take up to 2 to 3 days. If this doesn’t help you poo, you can try 2 to 3 servings a day.
You can also grind flaxseed into a powder to sprinkle it on salads and whatever you have for breakfast.
To avoid making constipation worse, drink about 2 litres of water during the day when using flaxseed. Flaxseed can increase the oestrogen levels in your body, so don’t use it if you have any oestrogen-based cancers like breast cancer.
When to see a doctor about constipation
If you’ve had constipation for more than a few weeks and self-care measures, like changing your diet and exercising more regularly, aren’t working, see a doctor. Read more about when to worry about constipation.
Also see a doctor if you:
- have never had constipation before
- have blood in your poo
- are losing weight without trying to
- have serious tummy pain
- have very painful bowel movements
- lose control of your bowels
- feel a bulge or see a red lump coming out of your bottom (anus)
- can feel a lump in your tummy or bottom
- have new constipation and you're over 60
- are being sick (vomiting) and not passing wind
Sometimes, constipation can be a sign of a disease or a physical problem in your digestive system. Certain conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Parkinson's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS) and thyroid disease can all cause chronic constipation.
Once the cause of your constipation has been found, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you and may recommend you see a dietician or nutritionist to help with your diet and manage your symptoms.
Read more about diagnosing and treating constipation.
Your health questions answered
What foods are bad for constipation?
What helps constipation fast?
Fibre supplements may help – choose ones made from natural ingredients such as psyllium husk. But be aware that taking too many supplements can cause symptoms like gas and stomach pain. Read more about natural ways to relieve constipation.
- constipation is a common condition that can be linked to your diet and lifestyle, and underlying medical conditions
- the foods we do or don’t consume can cause constipation
- try high fibre foods to prevent constipation – include wheat bran and whole grains regularly in your diet
- try a natural laxative such as prunes and prune juice – but don’t overdo it
- if you’ve had constipation for more than a few weeks and self-care, like changing your diet and exercising more regularly, isn’t working, see a doctor