Constipation is that embarrassing problem we try not to discuss with our health professionals or dear ones but can’t ignore when we are in our private space! Prevent constipation with fibre and a few simple changes to your lifestyle.
I’m going to use terms like stools, bowel movement, gut contents and poo, which all mean faeces – so be prepared!
The dictionary defines constipation as “a condition in which there is difficulty in emptying the bowels, usually associated with hardened faeces.” So your poo is hard and dry, you have trouble passing it and you may poo less frequently, feeling like you haven’t finished. You might have cramps or bloating as well. You can even have overflow diarrhoea if your poo forms a hard plug in your gut.
You can judge how hard – or soft – your poo is using the Bristol Stool Chart. The ideal consistency of your poo is 3-4, 1-2 is constipated, and 5-6 is diarrhoea.
If you are constipated, it’s usually an indication that there’s an imbalance in your digestive system. We know the biome – all the microbes that live in our gut – influence our health significantly so eating to prevent constipation has the bonus of keeping the biome healthier.
To prevent constipation you need to:
- Eat plenty of fibre
- Drink plenty of fluid and
- Move your body.
Let’s look a bit more closely at how to achieve each of these points.
Fibre is only found in plant foods, it isn’t in any animal foods. It provides food for the microbes making up the biome, which is great for the health of our gut. Fibre also dilutes any toxic chemicals in the gut which might harm the cells lining it.
There’s different types of fibre and they have different effects on the gut.
Insoluble fibre is all the parts of plants which can’t be digested. More insoluble fibre helps move your gut contents along faster particularly in the large intestine. It also helps to increase the frequency of pooing.
Foods high in insoluble fibre are high fibre (think ‘brown’, wholemeal or wholegrain) wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, bulghur and rye grains and products made from them like bread and pasta, as well as fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Soluble fibre is the fibre which makes a gel in the gut. Soluble fibre slows the time it takes for food high in it to pass through the stomach and small intestine. Again, this fibre absorbs fluid and plumps out the gut contents, so your poo is bulkier and softer. Soluble fibre also reduces the re-absorption of cholesterol from the normal process of digestion and can reduce the absorption of nutrients.
Foods high in soluble fibre include oats, barley, vegetables, lentils, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit. These foods tend to have a lower glycaemic index (GI), due to the time taken for digestion (want to know more about GI? – check out this blog: Carbs and GI – what it all means).
Resistant starch is resistant to digestion in the small intestine but is broken down by bacterial fermentation in the large intestine. This process produces short chain fatty acids which provide lots of health benefits for the cells that line the gut.
Foods high in resistant starch include legumes, whole grains, cold cooked potatoes, rice and pasta, and firm bananas. These foods tend to have a lower GI, too.
How much fibre do we need?
- Adult women should aim for at least 25g of fibre a day (it’s the Average Intake (AI) recommended for women). If you are meeting that now then it’ll be easy to increase it to 28g per day (the NHMRCs Suggested Dietary Target (SDT) for fibre).
- Adult men’s AI is a little more, and should be aiming for at least 30g each day, with an SDT of 38g per day.
It’s hard to get enough fibre if you follow a gluten free, low grain or paleo diet. Surveys have shown about 40% of our fibre comes from grains and gluten free grains tend to be low in fibre. The benefits of fibre can’t be understated, so talk to your dietitian or contact me for coaching advice to maximise your fibre intake.
- Last week we talked about how much fluid we need (check out my blog on water here). The gist is the Average Intake (AI) of fluid for Australian adults is for:
- Adult women is 2.1L or about 8 (250mL) cups each day; and for
And adult men is 2.6L or about 10 (250mL) cups each day.
Remember though, if you increase your fibre intake, those fibres will absorb more fluid so you’ll need to drink more. Get that water bottle out and start sipping!
Move your body!
The action of moving your body can passively massage the gut, helping it to move the gut contents along. So think about your daily activities as gently easing everything along and do more of those daily activities – walk more, bend more, reach more and do regular planned exercise at home, the gym or wherever it suits you.
What else can make my poo hard?
Some medications, including codeine-based pain relievers and supplements like iron, cause constipation.
Long term use of laxatives makes the bowel lose its muscle strength.
Delaying going to the toilet when you get the urge is a problem. Remember, when you have to go you have to go!
There’s lots of other reasons for being constipated. Talk to your GP for advice first and when you are ready to make a change to your diet and movement, contact me.
So to sum up:
If you’re worried about anything to do with your bowels don’t be shy, talk to your doctor.
To manage or prevent constipation:
- Eat more fibre
- Drink more fluid and
- Move more.
I’ve got to go now… see you next week!
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