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Constipation is a common condition in which your bowel movements are difficult to pass or happen less often than normal.
The condition can cause stomach cramps, bloating, and other uncomfortable symptoms that can negatively affect your daily life.
Fortunately, depending on the cause, you can relieve constipation by eating certain foods and avoiding others.
This article explains what to eat and avoid for quick constipation relief and provides a sample constipation diet.
What is constipation?
Constipation is a condition in which you have fewer than three bowel movements per week (1).
These bowel movements — which are often lumpy or hard — are usually difficult to pass, and even after passing them, you may still feel like you could poop more.
Constipation is very common, affecting 10–15% of the world’s population (1).
It can occur at any age and is twice as prevalent in females compared with men (2).
Common causes of constipation include (3):
- low-fiber diet
- caffeine or alcohol misuse
- intestinal obstructions
- dietary changes, like transitioning to a keto diet
- use of certain medications like opioids, antidepressants, and blood pressure medications
- iron supplementation
- hormone disorders like hypothyroidism and diabetes
- neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and spinal injuries
Constipation may be acute, lasting less than a week, or chronic, persisting for at least three months.
Most people can relieve or at least improve constipation with diet and other lifestyle changes, but for others, additional interventions like medications, physical therapy, and possibly surgery may be needed.
Foods to eat to relieve constipation
Many people believe that you should avoid eating when constipated to help clear out the colon.
However, if you don’t eat, you’ll end up hungry and constipated.
Therefore, you should still eat if you’re constipated.
In fact, eating the right foods can help relieve your constipation.
Fiber helps alleviate and prevent constipation by increasing stool weight and stimulating stool passage through your intestines.
A review of five studies involving mostly children with constipation showed that a high fiber diet was 19% more effective for increasing stool frequency compared with placebo (4).
The best sources of fiber include:
- nuts and seeds
- beans and peas
These foods are high in prebiotic fibers, which are fermented by the “friendly” bacteria in your gut to produce short-chain fatty acids.
Adding more fiber to your diet can also help alleviate hemorrhoids, a common complication of constipation from straining to pass stool (8).
It’s vital to introduce fiber-rich foods into your diet gradually and drink plenty of water.
Eating too much fiber or failing to gradually increase your fiber intake over several days to weeks could have the opposite effect and worsen your constipation (9).
In some cases, a short-term liquid diet may be helpful for promoting bowel rest in people with inflammatory conditions like IBD.
Foods high in probiotics
Probiotics are living microorganisms that provide beneficial effects for digestion, immunity, and inflammation.
While there is limited research on the effects of probiotic intake from food on constipation, probiotic supplementation has been shown to relieve constipation by decreasing stool transit time and improving stool frequency and consistency (10).
In either case, including foods with probiotics in your diet can still promote gut health and bowel regularity.
Sources of probiotics include:
- soft cheeses like gouda
Foods to avoid with constipation
Just as eating certain foods can help relieve constipation, eating others may worsen your constipation.
Here are foods to avoid with constipation:
Foods high in saturated fats
A high saturated fat diet (more than 30 grams daily) is strongly associated with constipation, especially in older females with diabetes (11).
Considering that females and people with diabetes are already at an increased risk for constipation, limiting saturated fats may be worthwhile.
Saturated fats are primarily found in animal products like fatty and processed meats and whole-fat dairy, but a few plant foods like coconut and palm oil, are also high in saturated fats.
Many baked and highly processed snacks also contain saturated fats.
Dairy — especially cheese — has long been associated with constipation.
While this belief is not completely false, it’s also not completely true.
A high intake of dairy (5–6 servings per day) has been associated with a change in gut bacteria that leads to constipation in some people, whereas consuming a moderate amount of dairy (1–4 servings per day) is associated with a lower risk of constipation, mainly in women (12, 13).
Therefore, you should avoid consuming large amounts of dairy — especially whole-fat dairy — with constipation, but consuming some dairy is probably fine and may even have protective effects against constipation.
High amounts of caffeine
Caffeine is commonly thought to be dehydrating, which can worsen constipation.
However, similar to the link between dairy and constipation, there is some truth to this statement, but it’s not entirely true.
While caffeine can lead to mild dehydration in large doses, moderate caffeine consumption does not cause dehydration — especially in those who regularly consume caffeine.
In fact, drinking coffee or tea in moderate amounts can be just as hydrating as plain water (14).
A moderate dose of caffeine generally refers to 1.36 mg per pound (3 mg per kg) of body weight (15).
This amounts to about 200 mg of caffeine for a 150-pound (68-kg) person.
For reference, 1 cup (8 ounces of 240 mL) of coffee contains about 96 mg of caffeine, and green tea contains 29 mg of caffeine per cup (16).
However, some people who regularly consume caffeine can consume up to 13.2 mg per pound (6 mg/kg) without increasing water loss (17).
As such, depending on how often you consume caffeine, you should limit your caffeine intake accordingly.
High amounts of alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol can cause dehydration, slow intestinal movement, and negatively affect your gut bacteria, all of which can lead to or worsen constipation.
Therefore, as with caffeine, moderation is key, if you choose to drink.
Moderate alcohol use is defined as one standard drink for women and two standard drinks for men per day.
One standard drink is equal to (18):
- 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol)
- 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
- 1.5 fluid ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)
Sample constipation diet menu
Here is a one-day sample constipation diet menu:
Breakfast: tomato and green pepper omelet, grapes, and oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon
Snack: Greek yogurt and almonds
Lunch: spinach artichoke grilled cheese
Snack: berry-kefir smoothie with almond butter, banana, frozen mixed berries, plain kefir, vanilla extract
Dinner: grilled salmon, roasted sweet potatoes, and asparagus
Remember to gradually increase your fiber intake and drink plenty of water.
Laxatives and fiber supplements for constipation
Most people with chronic constipation usually require the use of laxatives at some point.
Laxatives are products that either soften stool or stimulate a bowel movement.
Polyethylene glycol is a synthetic material, whereas methylcellulose is semi-synthetic, and psyllium is a naturally derived fiber.
These products come in powder form — flavored or unflavored — and they usually mix well in your beverage of choice.
You should limit stimulant laxatives like senna and bisacodyl (Dulcolax) as they can cause excessive cramping (19).
Exercise for constipation
Regular physical activity provides a myriad of health benefits, including constipation prevention and relief.
An observational study reported that people who engaged in no physical activity — regardless of intensity — were more likely to pass less than three stools per week and have hard or lumpy stools compared with people who engaged in some exercise (20).
The same study also reported that people who ate less fiber and drank less fluids were also more likely to have constipation than people with a higher intake of fiber and fluids.
What’s more, a review of nine studies with 680 people with constipation demonstrated that exercise — mainly aerobic exercise like walking — significantly improved constipation symptoms (21).
Exercise helps relieve constipation mainly by promoting intestinal motility, thereby increasing bowel movement frequency (22).
As such, engaging in regular physical activity may be effective for constipation relief but also protective against constipation.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like brisk walking or biking, and at least two days per week of muscle-strengthening activities like weight lifting (23).
The bottom line
Constipation is a common condition that causes uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, stomach pain, and feelings of incomplete bowel movements.
Most people can relieve constipation or at least improve their symptoms by eating foods rich in fiber and probiotics while avoiding or limiting foods high in saturated fats, excess dairy, and high amounts of caffeine and alcohol.
Regular exercise along with laxatives — as needed — can also promote bowel regularity and relieve constipation symptoms.