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Most people don’t pay much attention to their daily bowel habits — until they’re disrupted. When you notice that your trips to the bathroom are becoming few and far between, it can get uncomfortable. Occasional bowel changes are normal. But when constipation becomes prolonged or repetitive, it’s important to consider what factors could be involved, like your diet.
For instance, do bananas cause constipation? And when you’re experiencing it, are foods like rice good for constipation? Let’s examine what foods could be making you constipated as well as what dietary and lifestyle adjustments can help.
What is Constipation?
Constipation is a condition in which you’re unable to have regular bowel movements. You may also experience difficulty emptying your bowel. The official definition of constipation is having three or fewer bowel movements per week. It’s often associated with hard stools, straining to use the toilet, and feeling as though you can’t fully “go”.
Fortunately, most mild cases of constipation can be self-treated at home. The first step is to understand some of the factors that are most likely contributing to your tummy troubles. Then, you can make adjustments accordingly.
Foods that Can Cause Constipation
What we’re putting into our bodies may either regularly be promoting or preventing constipation. But there are a lot of myths out there about what foods truly slow things down. If you experience recurring bouts of constipation, these are categories of foods to consider.
Low Fiber Foods
Foods that are low in fiber are digested quickly and generally result in a dramatic blood sugar spike. Some of the most prominent examples of low-fiber foods in the diet include highly processed and refined grains, like white bread, rice, and pasta, and white flour, which is used to make many packaged snack foods.
These white grains are processed to the degree that most of their original nutrients are removed, including fiber. While they are usually enriched with vitamins and minerals at the end of their processing, fiber isn’t added back.
On the other hand, whole grains are minimally processed and retain most of their nutrients, including their fiber content.
Does this mean that you should always choose whole grains? Not necessarily.
For example, I know brown rice gets called out a lot for being the better choice but that doesn’t mean you have to always choose brown rice.
Brown rice does have more fiber, around 3 grams, but we have to look at the bigger picture. When people eat white rice it’s not in isolation. People usually enjoy white rice with fiber-filled veggies.
So rather than asking if rice is good for constipation, consider if you feel like going to whole grain route with brown rice or if you’re feeling like white rice. Both options can work!
Red and Processed Meats
Red meats like beef, lamb, and pork are high in saturated fat and don’t contain fiber. Some researchers think consuming large amounts of saturated fat activates the ileal brake in your digestive tract, which slows digestion and stomach emptying.
One 2015 study observed a higher risk for constipation when someone is regularly eating over 30 grams of saturated fat per day. For context, three links of cooked breakfast sausage will contribute 6 grams of saturated fat.
Choose lean meats and focus on adding fiber foods when you have meat. A lot of the time we create dinner around our meat. Instead, consider creating your meal around your veggies and then add meat.
Fried and Fatty Foods
These types of foods make up a substantial portion of the Western diet. Find fried and fatty foods at just about any restaurant or fast food joint — not to mention the grocery store. While they may tickle the taste buds, they are high in saturated fat with minimal fiber. This makes them prime suspects for promoting constipation.
Examples include fried chicken, corn dogs, funnel cakes, fried Oreos, potato chips, fast food tacos and double cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, and fried ice cream.
Foods may be fried in a variety of oils, whether animal or plant-based. But isn’t olive oil for constipation helpful? While some evidence suggests that small amounts of olive oil can be as effective as mineral oil in treating constipation, that doesn’t apply in the context of frying.
Most foods we eat are processed to some degree. Ultra-processed foods have been heavily altered to remove most of their original nutrients, often with not-so-great ingredients added.
For instance, chips, cookies, candy, donuts, and even granola bars and crackers can all fall under the ultra-processed snacks category. They contain minimal if any fiber, a high amount of added sugar, and often saturated fat. In other words, they’re not doing your digestive health any favors.
High-Fiber Foods to Relieve Constipation
Only an estimated 5% of American adults are meeting the daily recommendation for fiber — which is only around 30 grams.
One of the main reasons we need adequate fiber in our diet is that it promotes bowel regularity and supports a healthy digestive system. Think of fiber as a pipe cleaner for your intestines, bulking up stool and keeping things moving to prevent clogs.
While low-fiber, high-fat foods can promote constipation, there are plenty of foods that can have the opposite effect. Plus, high-fiber foods also tend to be low in saturated fat and other problematic ingredients.
So when asking questions like, do bananas cause constipation or does oatmeal cause constipation, the focus should really be on your overall diet — not specific foods.
Incorporate plenty of these high-fiber foods in your diet to help prevent constipation:
- Fruit: apples, peaches, pears, berries, bananas, avocado, kiwi
- Vegetables: carrots, zucchini, sweet potatoes, parsnips, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers
- Legumes: navy beans, white beans, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, green peas, peanuts
- Whole Grains: quinoa, brown rice, 100% whole wheat bread, oats, barley, millet
- Nuts and Seeds: pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts
Other Factors Affecting Your Bowel Habits
In addition to diet, other factors play a role in your poop schedule. Consider what these look like in your everyday lifestyle and whether there’s room for improvement.
Staying hydrated is important for regulating your body temperature, keeping your skin and eyes moist, and carrying oxygen to your cells. It’s also important to help flush out waste from your digestive system.
Not getting enough water is a known secondary cause of constipation. This means it’s among the first causes to rule out before considering a functional obstruction.
Stay hydrated by keeping a water bottle with you at all times, or rotating other beverages like tea or seltzer water. Water-rich fruits and veggies can also help you meet hydration needs.
Staying active helps support bowel regularity. Think of moving your body not only as a way to support your heart and muscular health but also your digestive motility. Being sedentary can promote slowed digestion and set you up for reduced bowel movements.
In fact, some research has found that exercise therapy can be an effective treatment option for people with constipation. This also suggests that an active lifestyle can be a helpful tool to alleviate constipation.
Aim to be active for at least 30-60 minutes most days of the week. This could include things like walking the dog, jogging, dancing, swimming, playing tennis, or lifting weights.
Get Ready for More Regularity
Being constipated isn’t fun. Fortunately, there are everyday habits that can help prevent it. A balanced high-fiber diet is one of the best ways to support your digestive health.
Be mindful of how your body responds to different foods, drink fluids, and stay active. If you’re experiencing persistent constipation, contact your healthcare provider. And don’t be embarrassed — you’re not telling them anything they haven’t heard before.
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Amanda is a pizza loving registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in mindfulness and gut health. She quickly realized that gut health goes beyond the gut; it is also about honoring our gut feelings. She is the creator of The Mindful Gut™ which uses science and strategy to help people improve their gut health.