Further to my latest blog post about the best foods for treating constipation, it is also important to spend some time looking at the foods that can cause constipation, because you can eat prunes and flaxseeds every day but if the rest of your diet is poor you won't reap the full benefits.
A poor diet can cause more than just constipation. Your digestive system can become inflammed and sluggish, making it unable to perform effectively, which has a knock on effect in terms of how well food is broken down and nutrients absorbed. This can lead to symptoms such as bloating, cramping and diarrhoea, as well as constipation. Your overall health will also be affected, as the adage 'you are what you eat' rings true.
So what are the main foods to avoid?
As I have discussed before, dairy can be inflammatory in some people and cause constipation (read more about foods & constipation.) Intolerance to dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, means your body lacks the enzyme lactase which breaks down the lactose (milk sugar) found in dairy foods, into smaller sugars ready for absorption in the intestines. The lactose is therefore too large to be absorbed and remains in the gut, which causes side effects such as bloating, cramping or indeed constipation as a result.
Top tip: If you know you can tolerate dairy but suffer from constipation, consume your dairy with a high fibre food, such as a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts.
By processed foods I broadly mean anything that comes out of a packet! Foods such as biscuits, cakes, ready meals, fast food (burgers, fried chicken, fries, etc.), pizza, crisps ... all are low in fibre and high in salt, sugar and/or saturated fat.
These foods aggravate our delicate digestive system, causing similar side effects to dairy, such as bloating, cramps, constipation or diarrhoea, but can also have a much more damaging long-term effect. The longer your digestive system is under stress the longer it will take to repair and chronic constipation can develop as a side effect (as well as putting yourself at risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s).
The best remedy is to avoid them altogether or try making them yourself, which is a lot more fun, and healthier. The internet is full of recipes for making your own healthy burgers, pizzas, cakes and treats that don't take a lot of time and taste delicious.
Top tip: BBC Good Food has an excellent collection of recipes and you can filter the results based on options such as 'easy' and 'healthy'.
Better known as refined carbohydrates but perhaps more simply remembered as 'white foods'. These include white flour, white rice, white pasta and white sugar. They have all been through a manufacturing process in order to refine them, but this also strips out all of the goodness (hence their whiteness), including fibre.
With none, or very little, fibre in these foods you are left with a refined carbohydrate, or sugar. Thus when eaten, the body breaks down this sugar and absorbs it into the blood stream really quickly, giving us a short burst of energy (one that isn't sustained as we burn it off quickly, resulting in afternoon slumps that have us reaching for the biscuit tin).
Sugar is inflammatory to the digestive system, so together with the lack of fibre (not to mention vitamins and minerals) this can quickly lead to digestive problems including constipation.
Top tip: Swap white for brown. It will fill you up for longer, contains lots of vitamins and minerals needed for good digestion, and contains fibre that is vital for bulking up the stools and allowing them ease of movement through the intestines.
Alcohol can also be a culprit when it comes to constipation.
Alcohol is dehydrating and so our body tries to recover fluids from our bowels in order to keep the rest of our body (including essential organs like our heart and brain) hydrated. This results in hard, dry stools that can cause constipation as they become more difficult to pass.
This is often compounded by the loss of electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, which are needed in order to retain water. Excess drinking causes increased urination, which is where these electrolytes are lost, so in combination with alcohol’s dehydrating effect, your stools can become dry, hard, and painful to pass.
Alcohol also suppresses peristalsis, which again will prevent the intestines' natural rhythm for moving our stools through the body for excretion, causing build-up and constipation.
Top tip: If you suffer from constipation but want to enjoy the occasional glass of wine or beer, drink 250ml water with every glass of alcohol to help keep you hydrated and limit the effects.
Fizzy drinks tend to be full of sugar, artifical sugar (such as aspartame) and/or caffeine which can all aggrevate your delicate digestive system causing inflammation, dehydration or an imbalance in your good bacteria. If you drink fizzy drinks regularly this could well be contributing to your constipation.
Top tip: If you like your water to have a bit of fizz, drink plain carbonated water as researchers have found that people with both indigestion and constipation saw an improvement in their symptoms.
Ensure you are drinking enough water if consuming both alcohol and/or fizzy drinks to help prevent dehydration and keep the stools soft and easy to pass, which you can read more about in ‘The importance of water’.
If you are interested to know more about your diet and constipation, then other topics that may interest you include, ‘Are your eating habits causing constipation?’ and ‘Do carbohydrates cause constipation?’