Being constipated means you’re passing stool less often or that when you do, the stools are harder to pass.
Constipation can affect anyone, but it’s thought to affect twice as many women as men, and it’s also more common in young children and the elderly.
Many cases of constipation clear up after a few days, but some people find that their constipation becomes a chronic (or long-term) problem that causes a lot of pain and discomfort.
If you have constipation, you may be able to improve your symptoms by making gradual changes to your diet.
Food and drinks that help constipation
Increase your fluids
If you’re constipated, you may find that it helps to drink more fluids, such as water or naturally-sweetened fruit and vegetable juices.
Fluids help to keep things moving through your digestive system, and they help to soften your stools, which may make it easier for you to poo.
According to the National Library of Medicine, it’s best to try and drink 8-10 cups (or 2-2.5l) of water a day if you have constipation.
Check with your doctor that it’s okay for you to drink more water, as certain groups of people may have to limit how much water they drink. These include people with heart or kidney problems.
Eat more fibre
You may also find that it helps to add more fibre to your diet.
Fibre is the indigestible part of plant foods like fruit, vegetables and grains. It helps to increase the size of your stools, which makes it easier for waste to move through the small and large intestines.
Fibre also absorbs water in the bowels, which helps to make your stools softer and easier to pass.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) recommends that adults eat 30g of fibre every day.
What are the best sources of fibre?
Most fruits and vegetables are good sources of fibre, and you should aim to eat at least 5 portions of these every day.
But some fruits and vegetables are particularly high in fibre. Here are a few examples.
Apples and other fresh fruit
Apples are a good source of dietary fibre, providing approximately 1.8g-2.4g of fibre per 100g serving.
Try to avoid peeling your apples if possible, because the skin contains a lot of the fibre found in the fruit.
If you don’t like apples, you can try berries, pears or oranges. These fruits all contain a good amount of dietary fibre, and can be enjoyed as part of a balanced and healthy diet.
Prunes are dried plums. Data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that 48g of prunes (around 5 pitted prunes) will provide around 3.4g of fibre. This makes them a very good source of dietary fibre.
Prunes also contain sorbitol. This is a sugar that’s thought to act as a natural laxative by drawing water into the intestines, and softening your stools.
You can find sorbitol in fresh fruits like grapes and apricots, but the amount is estimated to be 5-10 times higher in dried fruit like prunes.
Wholegrain varieties of starchy foods are often a good source of dietary fibre.
Two slices (or 70g) of wholemeal bread provides approximately 5.7g of dietary fibre. They also contain a number of other, equally important, vitamins and minerals like iron, folate and magnesium.
If you don’t like wholemeal bread you could also try eating brown rice or wholewheat pasta. You could also use wholegrain flour when baking cookies, or stirring wholegrains like barley into a soup or stew.
The USDA recommends trying to make at least half of your grains wholegrains. It may be best to start adding wholegrain and high-fibre foods to your diet slowly, so that your body has time to adjust to the change.
High-fibre breakfast cereals
Healthy cereals that contain wholegrains or oats can be a good source of dietary fibre. Try to look for options like shredded wheat cereals, wholewheat biscuits or porridge, as these cereals tend to be high in fibre.
The BDA also says that some bran flake cereals can contain 13g-24.5g of fibre per 100g serving, which could be as much as half of your recommended daily allowance.
Beans and pulses
Often prized for their protein content, beans and pulses also contain large amounts of dietary fibre. According to the US Department of Health and Human services, navy (or haricot), small white and yellow beans all provide approximately 9.2g-9.6g of fibre per 100g.
Chickpeas, split peas, lentils and pinto beans are also excellent sources of dietary fibre and they’re easy to add to your diet too. You can put them in stews, casseroles or meat sauces, salads or soups and you can buy them canned or dried in most supermarkets.
Tips for adding fibre to your diet
If you’re adding a lot of high-fibre foods to your diet, it’s best to do so gradually, because a sudden increase in dietary fibre can upset your stomach. Symptoms of this include wind and bloating.
You should also remember to drink plenty of fluids. This will help the fibre to work properly, and make sure that you don’t become dehydrated.