Constipation is an unfortunately common problem, affecting at least 15% of the population. Most of us will experience constipation at some time or another. There are a number of foods that may act as triggers of constipation and here we have identified the 5 top foods we believe play a key role in contributing to digestive problems. By helping you to identify them, you will be able to determine if they cause problems for you and whether eliminating them helps your symptoms improve.
Are wheat and/or dairy triggering your constipation? We explain why these foods may be causing problems
1) Dairy foods
Dairy foods, and specifically cow's milk, have been shown in many studies to act as a potential allergen and trigger for constipation, particularly in children. The studies have mainly trialled pasteurised and homegenised milk products, which have had natural digestive enzymes and probiotic bacteria removed in the pasteurisation process. Milk with added probiotics has in fact been shown in some studies to help relief constipation which leads us to believe it is the processing of the milk that potentially causes problems. Click here to read more about cow's milk and constipation.
You can read more about the benefits of probiotics in helping to relieve constipation here.
Gluten is increasingly being recognised by studies as well as anecdotal evidence as a common cause of constipation. Gluten is the protein part of the grain found in wheat, rye, barley and tricale. It is known to be difficult to digest, particularly in highly refined foods, and may be the cause of digestive issues for many people. Coeliac disease is an auto-immune condition in which gluten destroys the villi lining the small intestine, affecting absorption of nutrients, leading to poor health. In addition to Coeliac Disease, there are also levels of gluten sensitivity/intolerance and the evidence for removal of gluten in the improvement digestive disorders is mounting. There is also a vast amount of anecdotal evidence supporting the removal of gluten for the improvement of digestive symptoms.
Gluten, found in wheat, rye & barley is hard to digest and may act as a trigger food for many people
A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in March 2010 indicated that introducing gluten to children before 6 months of age is likely to cause long term functional constipation. You can read more about constipation in children here.
3) Bananas - green bananas
When discussing the role bananas may play is causing constipation, it all comes down to colour. Studies shown that green bananas, as they are unripe, contain a high proportion of resistant starch and as a result can cause constipation. Bananas also contain a large amount of pectin (fruit fibre) which may have the effect of drawing water from the intestines towards the stool. If you are already dehydrated (due to not drinking enough water for example), this quantity of pectin may trigger constipation.
Interestingly, ripe bananas may help to relive constipation. We have recently discussed 'Bananas: Cause or cure for constipation?' which you can read more about here.
Caffeine is known for its stimulatory properties, and often acts as a digestive stimulant for many people, however it also has a diuretic effect within the body, potentially leading to dehydration. Dehydration is a primary cause of constipation so it is important to drink plenty of water alongside caffeinated drinks. A handy tip is to try alternating one cup of tea or coffee with a glass of water. There are many refreshing herbal teas available which you can try to swap for your daily caffeine intake.
Is your coffee making your dehydration? Caffeine acts as a diuretic which may cause constipation
5) Refined carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates typically take the form of white bread, white pasta, cakes, biscuits and muffins. They are made using white flour, which has typically been highly processed and the bran part of the grain has been removed. As a result, the fibrous part of the grain has been taken away. The role of fibre is important for both supporting digestive health to keep things moving, as well as helping to slow down the release of glucose into the blood stream. Refined carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body into simple sugars, and the sugar itself may act as a trigger for constipation.
Refined carbohydrates are lacking in fibre which may act as a trigger for constipation
If refined carbohydrates make up a considerable part of your diet, why not try swapping that biscuit or slice of cake for some delicious seasonal fresh fruit which is naturally sweet and contains plenty of digestion-boosting fibre?
It is important to remember that we are all individuals, with unique digestive systems, and as the famous saying states, one man's poison is another man's cure. It may be the case that only one of these foods poses a problem for you rather than them all, and as we have discussed before, an Elimination Diet is the gold standard in helping to identify which foods trigger your symptoms.
If you have eliminated the potential trigger foods yet are still struggling with constipation, you may like to read about Natural Remedies for constipation here.
Foxx-Orenstein A.E. Update on constipation: One treatment does not fit all. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 2008.
Carroccio, A & Iacono, G. Chronic Constipation and Food Hypersensitivity - An Intriguing Relationship. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2006;24(9):1295-1304.
Iacono G, Cavataio F, Montalto G, et al. Intolerance of cow’s milk and chronic constipation in children. N Engl J Med 1998;339:110-4.
Dehghani SM, et al. The Role of Cow’s Milk Allergy in Pediatric Chronic Constipation: A Randomized Clinical Trial.Iran J Pediatr. 2012;22(4):468-74
Biesiekierski J R, Newnham E D, Irving P M et al. American Journal of Gastroenterology. Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without celiac disease: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial. 2011 Mar;106(3):508-14.