As RDs, we aren’t shy about discussing bowel movements with our clients. Not everyone, however, is as open about sharing their bodily functions or bathroom habits. But they’re important to discuss, as bowel patterns can say plenty about one’s health and dietary patterns.
Constipation, generally defined as three or fewer bowel movements in one week, affects up to 20% of Americans. Constipation can lead to a wide variety of complications such as hemorrhoids, fecal impaction, and diverticulitis. In the most serious cases, it can be a symptom of potentially life-threatening or disabling conditions such as colorectal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, or neurological disorders.
How Do You Treat Constipation?
It’s important to rule out a serious underlying condition in clients with chronic constipation, in addition to identifying medications that may contribute to it. If these don’t appear to be the causes of constipation, the next step is to discuss lifestyle factors, such as diet, hydration, and exercise. While there are plenty of pharmacological treatments for constipation, helping clients identify high-fiber foods and how to prepare and eat them can be a much more enjoyable and less expensive option.
What Foods Can Help Alleviate Constipation?
- Prunes: There’s a reason prunes are the first food on everyone’s mind when it comes to constipation. They’re high in fiber and sorbitol, a naturally occurring laxative. If clients are hesitant, suggest adding prunes to oatmeal, mixing them in with trail mix, or blending prunes or prune juice into a smoothie.
- Kiwi: Eating two kiwis a day is associated with decreased constipation and may cause fewer adverse side effects (eg, gas, bloating, pain) than prunes or psyllium powder. While kiwi tend to be a bit pricier and depend on seasonality, they may be one of the more palatable options.
- Chia seeds: Chia seeds are one of the highest-fiber foods weighing in at 11 g per oz (about two tablespoons). The fiber helps bulk up stool, while the seeds absorb water to form a gellike consistency that helps soften stool and enables it to move more easily through the bowels. Chia seeds make great additions to oatmeal, smoothies, and yogurt.
- Artichokes: Artichokes contain inulin, a prebiotic fiber that helps promote growth of beneficial gut bacteria. They also contain a compound called cynarin that may help promote digestion by speeding gut movement. While fresh artichokes can be time-consuming to prepare, jarred artichokes easily can be added to a variety of dishes.
- Pulses: Beans, peas, and lentils are packed with both insoluble and soluble fiber. Promoting pulses as an inexpensive, versatile food can help encourage clients to try them.
- Coffee: Coffee for constipation can be subjective. A cup of coffee can help stimulate the muscles in the colon to empty the bowels. Caffeine in excess, however, can cause dehydration, which can lead to constipation.
Bottom Line on Fiber
The daily intake recommendation for fiber is 25 g for women and 38 g for men, or 14 g per 1,000 kcal consumed. Ensure clients increase fiber intake gradually over several weeks, since significantly increasing fiber intake overnight can cause bloating, gas, and abdominal pain. As fiber intake increases, however, it’s also important for clients to drink more water. Staying hydrated helps stool stay softer and move better through the intestines.
Other Lifestyle Treatments
Aside from food, consider encouraging physical activity to help alleviate constipation. Exercise helps increase blood flow to the intestines, which keeps food moving through the digestive tract. Even simple, low-impact exercises such as a 15-minute brisk walk will help keep the bowels moving. Another great exercise is yoga, which can help clients relax and reduce stress, too much of which can have a negative effect on gut health.
— Kate McManus, MPH, RD, CSCS, is an aspiring freelance writer and clinical dietitian manager with ProMedica Senior Care. Dietetics is her second career after spending several years working in sports medicine. She hopes to combine both professions to promote a holistic, well-rounded approach to health and wellness.