Constipation, which goes hand in hand with bloating and weight gain, is one of the most common digestive problems in the United States, affecting close to 2.5 million Americans. While not all cases are preventable, most are a result of the Standard American Diet (SAD) that’s high in processed foods and devoid of many healthy foods that keep things moving. Sure, you can rely on one of those over-the-counter or prescription solutions, but those don’t really fix things in the long run. To find out what we should be doing to help treat and prevent this dreaded digestive issue, we reached out to leading health experts.
Add More Fiber to Your Diet
One of the best ways to fight constipation is to slowly increase the amount of fiber in your diet to at least 25 grams per day (ideally, 35 grams). Fiber is the zero-calorie, indigestible part of a carbohydrate that adds bulk to food. Once it’s in your stomach, fiber swells, absorbs and removes fat and calories and boosts metabolism.
“It also softness your stool and helps push it out of your body,” explains Rachel Berman, RD and general manager of Verywell Health. Because it adds bulk without the calories, it also helps you lose weight without hunger. But you need to take things slow. “Adding too much fiber too soon can cause undesirable side effects like gas and bloating so make sure that you increase amounts slowly by adding one additional serving of a high fiber food every couple of days. Foods high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds and beans.”
Drink Lots of Water
Fiber needs water to work its magic. If you’re consuming the recommended 25-plus grams per day, you’ll want to drink 1.5 to 3 liters of water a day, depending on factors like how water-rich the food you eat is and how active you are. “Without water your stool may be hard, which makes it difficult to move through the body,” says Berman. “You’ll know if you’re drinking enough if your urine is pale yellow and you go several times per day.”
If you have a hard time meeting your water requirement, add pieces of fruit or cucumber to your water. They add flavor without adding sugar or calories and will help with digestion while hydrating your body.
Develop a Calming Morning Routine
Having a calming morning routine is important to help relax your digestive system. “Your bowels are most active first thing in the morning so it’s your best bet for going to the bathroom,” says Berman, adding that moderate amounts of caffeine can help with constipation. “So start the day with a hot cup of green tea or coffee, sit and do something that makes you feel relaxed, like reading or meditating.”
It’s also important to carve out time to actually go to the bathroom. Sometimes you’ll need to sit there for a few minutes (or 10) for things to get moving. So make sure you allow yourself adequate time to have a movement in the morning.
Alcohol can wreak havoc on your digestive system if you overdo it. “It can slow down peristalsis, the movement of the digestive system, and also dehydrate you, making it harder for stool to pass,” explains Berman. “If you tend to have more than one drink per day (for women, two for men) and you’re having trouble going to the bathroom, cut it down or out.”
Cut Back on Salt
Salt may add flavor, but it can negatively impact your bowel movements. “Sodium and potassium are electrolytes in charge of water balance in our body,” says Danielle Hamo, RD, LD/N. “Sodium causes retention of water and potassium flushes out extra water, helping fight constipation.”
Hamo recommends limiting your salt intake and introducing foods naturally high in potassium to your diet. “The fruits and veggies that are highest in potassium are bananas, avocados, spinach and papayas, while high sodium foods to avoid include table salt, frozen meals, such as frozen pizza, jarred tomato sauce, cured meat, such as bacon and cold cuts, canned foods, such as beans, soups and most sauces.”
While you’re at it, you should remove refined sugar and refined carbohydrates, both of which cause the body to hold on to water, which contributes to bloating and constipation.
Load Up on Probiotic-Rich Foods
“Probiotics are strains of bacteria that can contribute to improved digestion by enhancing gut bacteria, reduce gas and bloating and support the immune system,” says Dr. Onikepe Adegbola. “The best natural probiotics are found in fermented foods, like kefir, yogurt, Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles. You can also find them in fortified foods (like probiotic-enhanced granola or bread), but they’re usually less effective since some of the live cultures are destroyed in the manufacturing process.”
Cook Your Vegetables
“Eating raw vegetables can lead to constipation, bloating and gas, while cooking vegetables helps break them down for easier digestion,” says nutritionist Kimberly Snyder. “Cooking vegetables also helps release nutrients, like lycopene from tomatoes.” The takeaway? Whenever possible, cook your veggies.