How Food Can Help (Or Hurt) Feeling Constipated

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
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© ohlamour studio / Stocksy United

Most of us have been there. Whether it’s an awful, boated feeling, belly discomfort or painful poops, nearly everyone has experienced the symptoms of constipation

While the exact cause for constipation differs for each person, understanding how diet affects your bowel movements (poop) can sometimes help you understand how to push toward your next one (pun intended). 

What is constipation? 

“People can have several reasons for constipation,” says Dr. Teri Brentnall, a gastroenterologist (GI) at the Digestive Health Center at UW Medical Center – Montlake. “For some people, the colon moves the stool to the toilet very slowly, and water is removed from the stool the longer it sits in the colon.” This can make the stool more constipated. 

If you fall into this category, Brentnall explains that this can result in infrequent stools (poos) — once or twice a week, or less — and the stool might be hard or pebbly. 

“For other people, constipation can form because the pelvic muscles aren’t working together to let the stool be deposited in the toilet,” says Brentnall. “People with this problem frequently report straining while trying to have a stool. The diagnosis of constipation due to pelvic floor problems is common in older women who previously have had children because this group of people may have had injury to or stretching out of ligaments in the pelvic floor. Constipation in the setting of pelvic floor disorders can be diagnosed by a GI doctor. Pelvic floor therapy can be a very effective treatment.” 

Here’s the thing — there’s no “right” number of poops someone needs to have in a given day or week, and the reason for the varying poop consistency can depend on many different factors including diet, the length of the colon, colonic motility, hormonal influences and drug side effects.  

Thankfully, many doctors agree on one place to start to tackle the uncomfortable feeling — your diet

Diet and constipation 

What you eat can have a big impact on how your body processes and digests what you eat. Unsurprisingly, some of the tastier foods can often be a cause for symptoms of constipation. 

“Fast foods and processed foods can cause constipation,” says Brentnall.  

Other foods high in sugar and fatty meats can also make it a bit harder to poop. You typically don’t need to cut out these foods entirely, though, Brentnall says, but adding more fiber to your diet can help prevent symptoms of constipation. 

Adding fiber from foods such as vegetables, fruits and grains (which can still be tasty, we promise), can get your bowels moving more freely. 

“Prunes, fruits, broccoli and other vegetables, wheat bran and yogurt with probiotics can improve the bulk of the stool,” says Brentnall, “which in turn helps with the retaining of water in the stool, preventing constipation. These foods can also help balance the microbiome.” 

You can also find fiber supplements such as psyllium over the counter, or other medications like Miralax to help add water back to the stool.  

“These over the counter remedies can promote water retention to move the stool along,” says Brentnall. 

Constipation myths 

Brentnall debunks common myths that are believed about constipation relief. 

“Drinking large amounts of water doesn’t generally improve constipation, studies show,” Brentnall says. “This is because most people take in sufficient water every day. Studies also show, despite what many people think, that cheese does not cause constipation.  In fact, just the opposite — for women, moderate diary intake, including cheese, is associated with more regular stools and less constipation.” 

Ultimately, if you’re experiencing symptoms of constipation, take a deeper look into your diet and the types of foods you’re consistently putting inside your body. If symptoms don’t improve after diet changes or the addition of fiber supplements, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about other potential causes, and ultimately, ways to find relief.