4 Foods That Cause Constipation, According to Experts
Unless you've been blessed with a perfectly regular digestive system regardless of what you eat, you probably know that what goes into your body has a huge impact on what comes out of it—and that it could exacerbate constipation.
But before you start limiting your diet to water and prunes, let's make something clear: Just because something is on this list, or just because you ate something while you were constipated and it didn't help you go to the bathroom, doesn't mean you need to avoid it at all costs.
"What happens to people when they get constipated, they start implicating every food, because every food starts to bother them, the worse the constipation gets," Elana Maser, MD, assistant professor of gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and gastroenterologist at the Feinstein IBD Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Health.
But constipation isn't usually connected to only one food—instead, it's the combination of food (or other lifestyle or genetic factors) that's slowing down your bowels. "Sometimes people end up limiting their diet to two or three things because they think they can't tolerate anything else, but really their bowel motion just needs to be managed," says Dr. Maser. "Once their bowels move more successfully, they can tolerate more foods."
Sometimes, constipation is even linked to a lack of certain foods or nutrients in your diet—mainly fiber, a type of carbohydrate that your body can't fully digest (and thus, moves through your digestive system relatively intact, essentially making your bowels do what they were designed to do). For example, it's not that, say, dairy is necessarily wreaking havoc on your digestive system—it's just that the cheese boards and milkshakes haven't given your colon enough fiber to work with.
Here, gastroenterologists weigh in on the top foods—along with some lifestyle factors—that can slow down your digestive system, leading to constipation and infrequent bathroom trips. Keep in mind: Just because something backed you up—like last night's ice cream cone or this morning's extra-creamy coffee—it doesn't mean you have to cut it out of your diet completely. But if particular foods tend to give you bathroom troubles repeatedly, it's worthwhile to consider cutting back a bit for your stomach's sake.
It's no secret that dairy, especially when consumed in excess, can do a number on your digestive system. "One of the big things people are always telling us about is cheese and milk; dairy products," Rudolph Bedford, MD, gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health. Some children seem to be particularly sensitive to cow's milk dairy products, but there's less science about how common dairy-induced constipation is in adults. For people with chronic constipation, Dr. Bedford will sometimes advise them to try to switch to non-dairy alternatives like almond, soy, and oat milk, as much as possible.
On the other hand, Dr. Maser is slower to advise a patient to swear off dairy products altogether. "I don't like to implicate gluten or dairy because while sometimes avoiding them gives people relief, it certainly doesn't do that for everybody," she explains. Especially if you're trying to get adequate amounts of vitamin D in your diet, dairy can be important, says Dr. Maser. So, for a lot of people, she'd rather find other ways to manage constipation than have people cut the food group completely.
What makes meat constipating isn't so much the meat itself, says Dr. Bedford, but that it crowds out other foods. "People who eat high amounts of red meat are not eating enough fiber," he explains. Red meat also contains quite a bit of fat, which moves slower through the digestive system.
But, again, this isn't a one-size-fits-all rule everyone should follow. In fact, Dr. Maser says that many of her patients find a large red meat meal can actually trigger a bowel movement. Remember: Foods, and how much of them you eat, affect people differently. If you do enjoy a good steak now and then, just make sure the rest of your meals have a sufficient amount of fiber (think: whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) to keep things moving.
Processed and fried foods
Fast food doesn't necessarily have a health halo around it, but here's one thing you might not know about your fave burger-and-fries combo: It could be the trigger behind your constipation, says Dr. Bedford.
Why? Processed foods tend to be high in fat and low in fiber, a combo that is rough on the colon, and can often slow down motility (or your body's ability to move food through its digestive tract). If you're not getting enough fiber in your diet outside of your fast-food meal, it can lead to constipation.
Got a sweet tooth? For the same reason as other foods on this list, sweets can be a problem if they're overrepresented in your diet because they have so little fiber. "The most troublesome foods would be candy, high-sugar foods like licorice, [or other fruity candies]," says Dr. Maser. "Those types of candies are really constipating."
If you're on a diet or otherwise have had to significantly reduce the amount of food you're eating, it could make you constipated. "You need the stomach to dilate enough when you eat to cause what we call the gastrocolic reflex. When the stomach expands, the colon starts to contract, which leads to emptying the stool," Dr. Maser explains. "If you don't have enough food inside your stomach, you're not going to get that reflex."
According to Dr. Maser, if you are reducing your food intake for some reason (and in a healthy way), you may want to try to increase the fiber in the foods you are eating to give your colon a little extra help.
Changing your diet
Let's say you're on vacation and eating a whole bunch of cuisine that doesn't make it into your usual dinner rotation when constipation strikes. Rather than this being an issue with what you've eaten, it could just be because the types of food—or the timing of your meals—has changed. "The bowel likes consistency in the diet," says Dr. Maser.
That said, if you do find that a change to routine disrupts your digestion, you may want to try to bring some routine with you—like your daily morning fiber cereal. Alternatively, have a plan on hand to deal with possible constipation, such as an over-the-counter laxative like Miralax.
Medication is a major cause of constipation, says Dr. Bedford. And people who don't understand that their medication is contributing to their constipation can end up abusing laxatives trying to manage it, he explains. "If you want to talk to me about things we see more often than not [with constipation], it's actually the different medicines that people take," he says.
If you're currently taking medications—particularly for allergies, anemia, reflux, nausea, blood pressure, psychiatric disorders, or pain—talk to your doctor about your constipation. If your medication is necessary, Dr. Bedford says the goal will become to manage your constipation so that you can stay on the medicine.
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