Everyone suffers from constipation now and then. But what do you do if it’s a daily occurrence?
The human intestine is most comfortable when producing stools (bowel movements) of desirable consistency and size. “A brown banana” is a good way to think of the ideal stool – not too hard, not too soft, not too big, not too small. The muscles of the colon are designed to move a soft, banana-size stool right on out. The colon has more difficulty passing hard stools, whether small or large.
Although certain diseases and many medications cause constipation, the most common culprit is inadequate fiber in the diet. Civilized man doesn’t eat enough soluble fiber to keep the bowels nicely regulated. Soluble fiber is the kind that can soak up fluids to soften the stool: think dried beans. Dry, hard beans can turn to mush if soaked and cooked long enough to absorb sufficient water. Soluble fiber is not absorbed from the intestines; it goes through unprocessed, soaking up extra water along the way, much like that gelatin stuff in disposable diapers.
So before we even get to foods, don’t forget water. No matter what foods you eat, your stools cannot be softened if there’s not enough water passing through your intestine.
Also, food cannot soften stools that have already been formed; fiber only softens the next stool along the way. Consider your intestinal tract like a conveyor belt. You want to keep a good supply of fiber moving along the tract in order to keep all your bowel movements a good consistency. The hard stools you have now should pass within a day or two. Then your new stools with higher fiber content from an improved diet can begin to form. Sometimes it takes awhile for the bowel to get used to this – it has to stretch out a bit and get used to working correctly again. Until then, you may experience gas, bloating, cramping, or mild discomfort.
Remember the proverb, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”? That’s a good place to start. One medium apple has about 3 grams of fiber. You’d have to eat 4 slices of white bread to get that much fiber (and with 4 times the calories).
Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fiber. Besides apples, other fruits with especially high soluble fiber content include raspberries, blackberries, and pears. Don’t peel your apples and pears – eat the skin, too, for the highest fiber content. And any fruit at all is a better food choice than simple carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, sweetened cereal, pasta, white flour, or sugar.
Vegetables with a high fiber content include beans, artichokes (who eats those?), peas, spinach, carrots, and broccoli. Raw vegetables are healthier than cooked ones, however somewhat more likely to cause bloating. But any vegetable, cooked or not, is healthier to eat than a simple carb.
Whole grains are a reasonable source of fiber, too. Anything with bran is a good choice. Whole wheat or rye bread are better than white bread. Oatmeal, shredded wheat, brown rice, and peanuts all have a good amount of soluble fiber.
Aim for at least 5 servings a day of these high fiber foods. Again, your colon may take a few days or perhaps a few weeks to adjust to the increase in fiber, but it should be well worth it in the long run. An additional bonus: most of these foods are low in calories but chock full of vitamins and other nutrients – good for you all the way around.
Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, M.D.