Can't poop? Constipation got you down? You're not alone—by any means. "There's an argument to be made that the entire U.S. population is constipated," says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University and a member of EatingWell's advisory board. Blame it on poor diet, our desk jobs, even the medicines we take—as a country, we're, well, backed up, accounting for about 8 million doctor visits a year. "A lot of people don't move their bowels every day," Katz explains. "That's the new norm."
To be fair, missing a daily poop doesn't always mean you're constipated. The National Institutes of Health defines constipation as usually having fewer than three bowel movements a week, but everyone is different. The best test is whether you have the classic symptoms: abdominal pain, bloating, passing dry, hard stools, or feeling like you gotta go but can't. Here's what you can do to prevent constipation, plus what to do if you have it—along with some tasty recipes that can help keep things running smoothly.
"Our diets are lousy and we sit all day," Katz says. "It's not normal." One big problem: a lack of dietary fiber, a substance found in plants that's necessary for healthy poop. Besides moving food along in your digestive tract, fiber helps cut your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Most people need around 30 grams of fiber a day (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men, or slightly less if you're 51 or older). But many Americans get only get 12 grams, Katz says. "As a culture we're seriously fiber deficient, and that can have big implications for our bowels." Add to that a lack of exercise and hydration, and you've got a real poop problem.
Constipation has other causes as well. Certain medications, like antacids, some antidepressants and strong painkillers (opioids), can plug you up. As any frequent flyer can tell you, travel can do it, too; so can pregnancy or a big change in your routine. In some cases, frequent constipation can be a sign of an underlying condition.
What to Eat for Constipation
"You can't go wrong with plant foods," Katz says. Go for naturally fiber-rich foods that will get things moving again—think whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables. With a little planning, you can sneak in fiber throughout your day: Try a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast (steel-cut oats are best), pack a pear with your lunch (eat the flesh and skin), or snack on air-popped popcorn in the afternoon. For dinner, cook up a hearty bowl of soup—the veggies will add fiber while the liquid will help keep you hydrated. Want more ideas? Check out these 6 high-fiber food swaps
you can make now.
If you're not used to eating much fiber, go slow and add just 5 grams a day. Introducing too much fiber too fast can trigger diarrhea and give you tummy troubles.
What NOT to Eat When You're Constipated
Rich, heavy foods that are devoid of fiber, like cheese and ice cream, will only stop you up more. You should also skip the overprocessed stuff with long lists of ingredients—especially those with chemicals you can't pronounce—and avoid fast foods, microwave meals and meats with added hormones or antibiotics. Again, it's about eating "pure foods with pure ingredients," Katz says.
More Poop-Friendly Tips to Relieve Constipation:
• Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Fiber needs water to do its job, so drink up. If you're dehydrated, your poop will likely be hard and dry—if you can go at all.
• Exercise. It only makes sense: To keep your bowels moving, you gotta move your body more. "Get a standing desk and walk more," advises Katz. With a little more activity, "a lot of people will find their constipation goes away," he says.
• Try to go at the same time every day. For some people, being regular means going like clockwork—literally. Try setting aside a little private poo time each day when you know you won't be rushed, and see if it helps.
• A word about laxatives: Most people won't need them if they're eating right, says Katz. Some over-the-counter laxatives can be harmful over time, and you can become dependent on them, so use them with caution.
• When to see a doctor: Constipation is common, but it can be a sign of something more serious, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, a thyroid problem or even cancer. If you keep getting constipated off and on, or if you notice a sudden, big change in your bowel movements, see your doctor.