Feeling “all backed up”? Is morning “need to go” missing? We’re speaking of the delicate and awkward topic of constipation and bowel habits with an equally awkward vocabulary of “pooping, feces, and stools”!
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK) constipation is described as:
(1) Having fewer than three bowel movements per week.
(2) Having hard dry stools that are difficult to pass.
(3) Feeling like there is more stool you would like to pass but can’t.
From Beginning to End
Surprisingly the digestive system, from mouth to anus (where poop comes out) can be up to 30 feet long depending on a person’s size.
Digestion time varies between men and women and among individuals usually taking six to eight hours to pass from the stomach through the small intestine depending what you ate. The partially digested food then enters the large intestine (colon) where it may take up to 36 hours to move through the entire colon.
Eating initiates involuntary wavelike actions called peristalsis which helps push food through the entire digestive system. Depending on the individual, complete digestion of food may take two to five days to move through your system.
So, what does poop consist of? This unique waste system is made up of water, protein, undigested fats, bacterial waste, intestinal cell debris, and undigested fiber.
Concentrate on Fiber Rich Food. Studies show that vegetarians have less constipation than people who eat few plant-based foods. Fiber found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains- like brown rice, whole wheat flour, oatmeal, quinoa, also beans, legumes, nuts and seeds is key to keeping stools soft which encourages easy movement of stool through the colon. Fiber is not absorbed during digestion and helps support a healthy gut microbiome while providing bulk to the stool and preventing constipation.
The USDA recommends men should eat 30-38 grams of fiber and women, 21-25 grams. Men older than 50 years should have at least 30 grams and women 21 grams.
Stay Well Hydrated. Lack of hydration can cause the stool to “dry out” as it passes through the colon resulting in dry, hard stools that are difficult to pass. Normal stool is 75% water so drink up. A good clue for good hydration is pale yellow urine.
Physical Activity. Activity stimulates the abdominal muscles and standing helps gravity move things along.
Causes of Constipation
Medications and Supplements like opioid pain relievers, medications to treat depression, or iron supplements may cause constipation. To relieve it make sure you are eating fiber rich foods and staying hydrated. You may need an over-the-counter laxative. Discuss your concerns with your doctor and pharmacist.
Changes in Routine. Do not ignore the urge to have a bowel movement. Going is a priority. When traveling, carry apples with you and when eating out, order salads and vegetables with your meals. Jet lag can mess with your routine. Any change in food habits can be a problem. Always think “fiber.”
Health Problems such as brain or spine disorders like Parkinson’s Disease, inflammation from diverticulosis, intestinal blockage or irritable bowel syndrome may contribute to constipation. Crohn’s Disease may cause constipation although diarrhea is more common. Discuss options to relieve constipation with your doctor. Meet with a registered dietitian-nutritionist to help you define a healthy diet.
A Bit More About Fiber
There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble, and both are beneficial to a healthy gut microbiome and support regularity.
Insoluble fiber which is present in wheat bran, vegetables and whole grains adds bulk to the stool keeping it soft rather than hard and easier to pass.
Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, fruits like bananas, strawberries, apples, starchy vegetables like beans, lentils, peas, and nuts and seeds. Soluble fiber absorbs water that softens stool consistency.
If you crave regularity, consider your habits, especially around food, hydration, and exercise. Seek medical care if you sense something is different than your “normal”.
If you want to increase your fiber, try this Easy Vegetarian Chili from www.EatingWell.com. The recipe follows but look it up for more details including the complete nutrition breakdown. A 1 cup serving is 311 calories and 14 grams of dietary fiber. A great way to get more fiber in your diet.
Easy Vegetarian Chili – EatingWell.com
In a large saucepan heat 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium-high heat. Add 3/4 cup finely chopped white onion, 1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper, and 4 cloves finely chopped garlic. Cook until tender, about 8 minutes.
Stir in 2 tablespoons chili powder, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 2 teaspoons dried oregano, 1 teaspoon ground coriander; cook, stirring for 30 seconds.
Add 2 (15-ounce) cans low-sodium black beans, drained and rinsed, 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, 1/4 cup water. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Serve the chili sprinkled with cheese.
Written by: Mimi Cunningham, MA, RDN, CDCES
Mimi is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and diabetes care specialist helping people learn to manage their diabetes and achieve good health. She believes food definitely is good culinary medicine.
- The Characterization of Feces and Urine: A Review of the Literature to Inform Advanced Treatment Technology
- Symptoms & Causes of Constipation