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5 Foods to Relieve Constipation (Yes, Prunes Are #1)

Irregularity is common in older adults, but the right foods can help jump-start your stool


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Can’t go? It may not make up for the bloating and bellyache, but if it’s any consolation, know that you’re not alone.

About 16 percent of U.S. adults experience constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). And when it comes to adults 60 and older, that percentage more than doubles. 

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What gives? “The GI (gastrointestinal) tract ages, just like the rest of a person’s body,” says William Chey, M.D., chief of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Michigan. Older adults also tend to take more medications than their younger peers, and many drugs and supplements can cause constipation, Chey adds.

The good news is constipation can often be managed at home. Plenty of water and regular exercise can get — and keep — things moving. So can a few standout foods.

Foods for constipation

1. Prunes

Prunes are often hailed as the number one food to help you go number two — and for good reason. Prunes, which are just dehydrated plums, are packed with fiber, which helps keep food moving through the digestive system.

They also contain the sugar alcohol sorbitol, which has a laxative effect, Chey explains. One study even found prunes to be more effective than psyllium (the active ingredient in Metamucil) for the treatment of mild to moderate constipation. Similarly, studies have found that prune juice is a safe and effective way to relieve constipation.

There is a downside to prunes, however. They can cause gas and bloating — and the more you eat, the more likely you are to notice these effects, Chey says.

2. Kiwi

Can’t deal with the unpleasant side effects from prunes? Grab a kiwi instead. Actually, make it two. A new study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that two kiwifruit a day helped to relieve constipation. Plus, research has shown that kiwi is better tolerated than prunes or psyllium, Chey says.

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3. Oatmeal

Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which helps to absorb water. Think of when you mix hot water into oatmeal and it starts to gel — that’s because of the soluble fiber, explains Ashley Baumohl, a registered dietitian in the division of gastroenterology at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“Not only does [the fiber in oatmeal] help regulate your bowel movements, but it’s also actually softening them, making them easier to pass,” Baumohl says. Chia seeds — which also form a gel-like consistency when combined with water — is another example of a food high in soluble fiber.

4. Papaya

Known for the beautiful orange hue of its ripened flesh, papaya can help jump-start a stalled digestive system. “Papaya has a lot of digestive enzymes, a lot of fiber and also some fructose, which for some people can cause a laxative effect,” Chey says. Mango is another fruit with similar traits.

5. Aloe vera juice

Cruise the beverage aisle at your local grocery store and you may spot a thick liquid made from the aloe vera plant. A bottle of the stuff, known as aloe vera juice, comes packed with purported health benefits — from clearer skin to heartburn relief. The low-sugar juice can also help with constipation, Chey says, along with another plant, fresh rhubarb.

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“They actually offer a stimulant effect; they stimulate your colon to contract and can help with constipation in that way,” Chey says.

A few other tips: In addition to the foods above, a wide range of fiber-filled fruits, veggies and other snacks can help keep you regular.

  • Berries, though small in size, are mighty when it comes to gut health due to their fiber content. They’re also versatile, Baumohl says. You can put them in yogurt, pile them on top of oatmeal or enjoy them in a smoothie.
  • If you’re reaching for an apple or pear, keep the skin on to up your fiber intake. And add vegetables like artichokes to pasta, Baumohl recommends.
  • Reach for nuts and seeds, which are a good source of fiber and healthy fats.
  • Keep your meals varied and avoid an all-white diet (white bread, potatoes), which can disrupt regularity, Baumohl says. 
  • Fiber is key when it comes to staying regular, but if you aren’t used to a fiber-rich diet, make sure you add it in slowly. It can be a shock to your GI system if you suddenly load up, Baumohl says.

Beyond food, pay attention to your posture on the toilet since this can affect your bowel movements. Raising your feet, leaning back or squatting may make going to the bathroom a bit easier, according to the Cleveland Clinic. 

If your constipation doesn’t let up, call your doctor. Medication may be able to help. You should also see a health care provider if constipation is a new problem for you, you see blood in your stool, you are losing weight unintentionally or you have severe pain with your bowel movements, the Cleveland Clinic says.  

Foods to avoid

If you’re constipated, or are prone to it, best to steer clear of matzo, which is dehydrated unleavened bread. In fact, doctors often recommend it for people who have diarrhea, Chey says. 

The NIDDK also suggests avoiding fast food, highly processed food (hot dogs, frozen pizza, microwave dinners) and meat.

Wondering about bananas? Go ahead and grab one, Chey says. They’re known to help with diarrhea, but they can also help with constipation.

“Bananas contain a substance called pectin, which has water-holding capacity. So if you have excess water in your stool, it’ll bind up the water and make your stool more fully formed. But the nice thing about pectin is that if your stools are too hard, it’ll also hang on to water and make your stool softer,” Chey explains.

A Recipe for Relief

Feeling backed up? Grab the blender and make a smoothie. Just add:

  • 4 ounces of aloe vera juice
  • 4 ounces of chopped papaya
  • 1 whole, peeled kiwifruit
  • Some ice

“It tastes really good, and it offers a mild laxative effect,” says William Chey, M.D., of the University of Michigan.

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