Constipation – uncomfortable, to say the least. Potentially painful, for sure. You can become constipated for a number of reasons, from a diet devoid of fibre, through to pregnancy, post-surgery or a recognised illness such as IBS.

In this fast-paced world, many people put their diet at the bottom of their priority list for several reasons, one being the ever-increasing cost of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains (the basis of a healthy fibre-rich diet). If you are not eating enough fibre, chances are your bowels will not be working efficiently and suddenly, you are struggling to go to the toilet – constipation has set in. Certain foods will keep you as regular as clockwork (unless there is an underlying bowel condition), whereas others will back your bowels up and cause you grief.

Why part of your daily diet should be plant-based

Fruit and vegetables overall are great for constipation, as are most greens such as spinach, kale, cabbage, Brussel sprouts. Whilst beans and legumes are less effective, they do have a part to play in your diet, as do nuts, seeds and whole grains. Having some of each category in your diet is the best thing to do – for instance, if you overload yourself with grains, this can also back you up in your system, without having fruits and vegetables to offset this. The phrase ‘a well-balanced diet’ really does apply.

Why does fibre make your bowels work more efficiently?

It starts with your digestive system. Fibre occurs in plant material and as such, is non-digestible. Fibre adds bulk to your stools at the same time as softening them for ease of passing through your bowels. Both soluble and insoluble fibre are present in plant food, both having different roles to perform.

Soluble fibre is like a sponge, its focus is to absorb water and bind with fatty acids that are present. Through this happening, a kind of gel is formed that ensures your stools stay soft for easy passing.

Insoluble fibre will not absorb any water, thus adding bulk to your stools. It’s a complicated process, but the two work together efficiently. So, when you don’t have that interaction occurring, you can find yourself constipated.

How much fibre should your family eat?

Age plays a part here, as does the fact that not everyone is the same or reacts in the same way to fibre. This chart is compiled by nutritionists and dieticians from BUPA, and it anticipated to be the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for adults on a 2,000 calorie per day intake. There is a gender and age factor applied as well.

Adults                        30g

Children 16-18          30g

Children 11-16          25g

Children 5-11            20g

Children 2-5              15g

If you think you don’t eat enough fibre per day (many people don’t), do increase your intake, but gradually, not all in one go. The effect of say, doubling the number of prunes you eat for fibre content, may cause unwanted effects! Slowly but surely is what you need to do.

Examples of foods you should eat

Starting with fruit, not only are many fruity items packed full of fibre, but they also have other highly nutritional benefits and, in some cases, plenty of water content for hydration (a must if you are constipated).

You can have both fresh and dried fruit; the most necessary point being to pick the best options for you. Within all fruits there are ‘agents’, some of which will contain cellulose (this increases water content), whilst others contain pectin, another example of the versatility of fruit and its ability to increase water volume. The more water, the faster your stools will pass through your bowels.

Best fruits to eat are: apples, apricots, blueberries, blackberries, figs, plums, raspberries, strawberries and dried fruits such as dates, dried apricots and figs, prunes, and raisins.

In terms of vegetables, we have mentioned certain items earlier in this article such as most green vegetables. To this you can add – artichokes, asparagus, carrots, squash, potatoes (red-skinned) and sweet potatoes. You can also add lettuce, which has a high-water content.

Most beans and legumes by name will have the desired effect on constipation, however, it is wise not to eat them all the time as they can create gas and bloating, which you also don’t want to experience.

Nuts and seeds should also be consumed in moderation, as overeating on these tasty morsels can actually cause varying degrees of constipation. Best fibre-rich nuts are almonds, Brazil nuts and walnuts. In terms of seeds, try chia, flaxseed and pumpkin seeds – remember to always digest them by a little chewing or crunching where possible.

Best drink is probably water, but you can intersperse this with teas for instance, such as fennel, anise, turmeric or ginger.

Foods to avoid

Red meat and fast food (pizza, burgers, hot dogs), and other processed meats

Anything fried – chips and even fried chicken

Grab and go snacks, such as crisps, crackers, pastries

White bread, so if you can, stick to wholemeal, wholegrain or granary

Refined flours, sugars, grains and rice (all refined products)

Alcohol in all forms, or at least limit it right down

Fibre is so important for bowel health, and to ward off critical illnesses in the future. It should prevent, or ease any constipation occurring. If you do have a spell of it, follow the food lists and increase your fibre intake day by day in a slow way. This should solve the problem, but if not, do seek the advice of your doctor, and never take any medications that neither your pharmacist or medical professional has recommended or prescribed. Above all, remember the importance of hydration, it’s not just for constipation, it’s one of life’s essentials.

Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science

I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.

Bev Walton | University of Reading BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences

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