Behaviors and Foods That Cause Constipation

If you're having trouble using the bathroom, these foods and behaviors may be responsible.

Unless you've been blessed with a perfectly regular digestive system, you may know that what goes into your body greatly impacts what comes out. In other words, you may know that some foods exacerbate constipation

But before limiting your diet to water and prunes, let's clarify something. Just because something backed you up—like last night's ice cream cone or this morning's extra-creamy coffee—doesn't mean you have to cut it out of your diet completely. But if particular foods repeatedly give you bathroom troubles, it's worthwhile to consider cutting back a bit for your stomach's sake.

Here's what you need to know about the foods and behaviors that may cause constipation and how you can limit or replace them. 

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Food as a Constipation Cause

"What happens to people when they get constipated, they start implicating every food. Because every food starts to bother them, [so] the worse constipation gets," Elana Maser, MD, assistant professor of gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Health.

But constipation isn't usually connected to only one food. Instead, it's the combination of food—or other lifestyle behaviors and genetic factors—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," explained Dr. Maser. "Once their bowels move more successfully, they can tolerate more foods."

In some cases, constipation links to a lack of certain foods or nutrients in your diet—typically fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate that your body can't fully digest. Thus, it moves through your digestive system relatively intact, making your bowels do what they were designed to do.

For example, it's not necessarily that dairy is wreaking havoc on your digestive system. The cheese boards and milkshakes haven't given your colon enough fiber.

Dairy Products

It's no secret that dairy, especially when consumed in excess, can affect your digestive system. 

"One of the big things people are always telling us about is cheese and milk, dairy products," Rudolph Bedford, MD, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told Health.

Some evidence suggests that children are particularly sensitive to cow's milk products. Still, there needs to be more research on how common dairy-induced constipation is in adults.

For people with chronic constipation, Dr. Bedford noted that he sometimes advises them to switch to non-dairy alternatives as much as possible. Some common options include almond, soy, and oat milk. 

On the other hand, Dr. Maser was 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," Dr. Bedford explained.

Especially if you're trying to get adequate amounts of vitamin D in your diet, dairy can be important, noted Dr. Maser. So, for many people, Dr. Maser preferred to find other ways to manage constipation than have people cut the food group entirely.

Red Meat

What makes meat constipating isn't the meat itself, said Dr. Bedford. But red meat crowds out other foods. 

"People who eat high amounts of red meat are not eating enough fiber," explained Dr. Bedford. Red meat also contains quite a bit of fat, and high-fat foods move slower through the digestive system.

But, again, that rule isn't one-size-fits-all. Dr. Maser said that many people find a sizeable red meat meal can trigger a bowel movement.

Remember: Foods, and how much of them you eat, affect people differently. If you enjoy a good steak now and then, try adding fiber (like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) to your other meals. Fiber may help 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 favorite burger-and-fries combo: It could trigger your constipation, according to Dr. Bedford.

Why? Processed foods tend to be high in fat and low in fiber. That combination is rough on the colon and can often slow down motility. Motility is 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, you may experience constipation.

Sweets

Got a sweet tooth? Sweets can be problematic 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]," noted Dr. Maser. "Those types of candies are really constipating."

Eating Less

If you're on a diet or have had to significantly reduce the amount of food you're eating, it could constipate you.

"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," said Dr. Maser. "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 healthily reducing your food intake for some reason, you may want to increase the fiber in the foods you eat 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. As opposed to being an issue with what you've eaten, it could be because the food types—or the timing of your meals—have changed.

"The bowel likes consistency in the diet," noted Dr. Maser.

That said, if a change to routine disrupts your digestion, you may want to bring some routine with you. For example, consider bringing your daily morning fiber cereal. Alternatively, consider a plan to deal with possible constipation. You might try an over-the-counter (OTC) laxative like Miralax

Medications

Medication, particularly for allergies, anemia, reflux, nausea, blood pressure, psychiatric disorders, or pain, is a potential cause of constipation. Dr. Bedford explained that people who don't understand that their medication may contribute to their constipation could end up abusing laxatives to manage it.

"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," noted Dr. Bedford.

Talk to your healthcare provider about constipation if you're currently taking medications. And if your medication is essential, Dr. Bedford said the goal would be to manage your constipation so that you can stay on the medicine.

A Quick Review

Some foods and behaviors may worsen constipation. A lack of fiber or sudden changes in your diet are some of the most common causes. Luckily, you can replace certain foods that wreck your digestive system, increase your fiber intake, or adjust your routine while traveling to remedy any issues. 

And remember: You don't need to avoid certain foods or behaviors that may cause constipation entirely. Instead, keep track of what works and doesn't work for your digestive system. You may limit some foods or behaviors and indulge in them every once in a while. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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