About 14% of people experience chronic constipation at some point.
Symptoms include passing stools less than three times per week, straining, lumpy or hard stools, a sensation of incomplete evacuation, feeling blocked, or being unable to pass a stool.
The type and severity of symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people experience constipation only rarely, while it’s a chronic condition for others.
Constipation has a variety of causes, but it’s often the result of the slow movement of food through the digestive system.
This may be due to dehydration, a poor diet, medications, illness, diseases affecting the nervous system, or mental disorders.
Fortunately, certain foods can help relieve constipation by adding bulk, softening stool, decreasing gut transit time, and increasing stool frequency.
Here are 17 foods that can help relieve constipation and keep you regular.
Dried plums, known as prunes, are widely used as a natural remedy for constipation.
They contain high amounts of fiber, with nearly 3 grams of fiber per 1/4-cup (40-gram) serving. This is 12% of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake of fiber.
The insoluble fiber in prunes, known as cellulose, increases the amount of water in the stool, which can add bulk. Meanwhile, the soluble fiber in prunes is fermented in the colon to produce short-chain fatty acids, which also can increase stool weight.
In addition, prunes contain sorbitol. This sugar alcohol is not absorbed well by the body, causing water to be pulled into the colon and leading to a laxative effect in a small number of people.
Finally, prunes also contain phenolic compounds that stimulate beneficial gut bacteria. This has been hypothesized to contribute to their laxative effect.
One older study in 40 people with chronic constipation found that eating 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of prunes per day significantly improved stool frequency and consistency compared with treatment with psyllium, a type of dietary fiber.
You can enjoy prunes on their own or in salads, cereals, oatmeal, baked goods, smoothies, and savory stews.
Summary: Prunes are high in fiber, sorbitol, and gut-healthy phenolic compounds, all of which can help treat constipation.
Apples are rich in fiber. One medium apple with the skin on (about 200 grams) contains 4.8 grams of fiber, which is 19% of the recommended daily intake.
Although most of that fiber is insoluble, apples also contain soluble fiber, which is mostly in the form of a dietary fiber called pectin.
In the gut, pectin is rapidly fermented by bacteria to form short-chain fatty acids, which can pull water into the colon, softening the stool and decreasing gut transit time.
One study in 80 people with constipation found that pectin accelerated stool movement through the intestines, improved symptoms of constipation, and increased the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Another older animal study found that rats fed a diet of apple fiber had increased stool frequency and weight, despite being given morphine, which causes constipation.
Apples are an easy way to boost the fiber content of your diet and alleviate constipation. You can eat them whole on their own or slice them up to add to salads or baked goods. Granny Smith apples have a particularly high fiber content.
Summary: Apples contain pectin, a type of soluble fiber that can soften the stool and promote its movement through the digestive tract.
Pears are another fruit rich in fiber, with about 5.5 grams of fiber in a medium-sized fruit (about 178 grams). That’s 22% of the recommended daily intake for fiber.
Suggested read: 9 signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
Alongside the fiber benefits, pears are particularly high in fructose and sorbitol compared with other fruits.
Fructose is a type of sugar that some people absorb poorly. This means that some of it end up in the colon, where it pulls in water by osmosis, stimulating a bowel movement.
Pears also contain the sugar alcohol sorbitol. Like fructose, sorbitol is not well absorbed by the body and acts as a natural laxative by bringing water into the intestines.
You can include pears in your diet in a wide variety of ways. Eat them raw or cooked, with cheese, or include them in salads, savory dishes, and baked goods.
Summary: Pears are rich in fiber and contain natural laxatives, such as fructose and sorbitol.
One kiwi (about 75 grams) contains about 2.3 grams of fiber, which is 9% of the recommended daily intake.
In one study, 19 healthy adults consumed a kiwi-derived supplement for 28 days. Researchers found doing so led to significant increases in the number of daily bowel movements, compared with a control group.
Another study found that eating two kiwis daily for 2 weeks was associated with more bowel movements and looser stools in 11 healthy adults.
Furthermore, a 2010 study gave 54 people with irritable bowel syndrome two kiwis per day for 4 weeks. At the end of the study, participants reported increased frequencies of bowel movements and faster colonic transit times.
Suggested read: The 19 best foods to improve digestion
It’s not just the fiber in kiwis that’s thought to fight constipation. An enzyme known as actinidin is also hypothesized to be responsible for kiwi’s positive effects on gut motility and bowel habits.
Kiwis can be eaten raw. Just peel them or cut them in half and scoop out the green flesh and seeds. They make a great addition to fruit salads and can be added to smoothies for a fiber boost.
Summary: Kiwis are a good source of fiber and contain actinidin, an enzyme that may improve gut motility and reduce constipation.
Figs are a great way to boost your fiber intake and promote healthy bowel habits.
One medium raw fig (about 50 grams) contains 1.5 grams of fiber. Moreover, just half a cup (80 grams) of dried figs contains 7.9 grams of fiber, which is almost 32% of the recommended daily intake.
An older study in dogs investigated the effects of fig paste on constipation over 3 weeks. It found that fig paste increased stool weight and reduced intestinal transit time.
Another study in 40 people with constipation found that taking 10.6 ounces (300 grams) of fig paste per day for 16 weeks helped speed colonic transit, improve stool consistency, and alleviate stomach discomfort.
Interestingly, figs contain an enzyme called ficin, which is similar to the enzyme actinidin found in kiwis. It’s thought this may contribute to its positive effects on bowel function, alongside its high fiber content.
Figs are a delicious snack on their own and also pair well with both sweet and savory dishes. They can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and go well with cheese and gamey meats, as well as on pizza, in baked goods, and salads.
Summary: Figs can help increase your intake of fiber and contain ficin, an enzyme that may promote regularity.
6. Citrus fruits
Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and mandarins are a refreshing snack and good source of fiber.
For example, one orange (about 154 grams) contains 3.7 grams of fiber, which is 15% of the recommended daily intake. Meanwhile, one grapefruit (about 308 grams) contains almost 5 grams of fiber, meeting 20% of your daily needs.
Citrus fruits are also rich in the soluble fiber pectin, especially their peels. Pectin can accelerate colonic transit time and reduce constipation.
In addition, citrus fruits contain a flavanol called naringenin, which may contribute to their positive effects on constipation.
Animal studies have shown that naringenin increases fluid secretion into the colon, causing a laxative effect. However, more research on humans is needed.
To get the maximum amount of fiber and vitamin C, eat citrus fruits fresh. Oranges and mandarins are a handy snack food, and grapefruit goes well in a salad or cut in half for breakfast.
Suggested read: FODMAP: A detailed beginner's guide
Summary: Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, and mandarins are high in fiber and contain several compounds that can reduce constipation, including pectin and naringenin.
7. Spinach and other greens
Greens such as spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are not only rich in fiber but also great sources of folate and vitamins C and K.
These greens help add bulk and weight to stools, which makes them easier to pass through the gut.
One cup (180 grams) of cooked spinach contains 4.7 grams of fiber or 19% of the recommended daily intake.
To get spinach into your diet, try adding it to a quiche, pie, or soup. Baby spinach or tender greens can be added raw to salads or sandwiches for a fiber boost.
Brussels sprouts are also super healthy, with just 5 sprouts containing 14% of your daily fiber needs and only 41 calories.
They can be boiled, steamed, grilled, or roasted and enjoyed hot or cold.
Meanwhile, broccoli contains 2.4 grams of fiber in just one cup (91 grams). This is equivalent to 10% of the recommended daily intake of fiber.
It can be cooked and added into soups and stews, as well as eaten raw in salads or as a snack.
Summary: Greens like spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are rich in fiber, which can help add bulk to stools to support regularity.
8. Jerusalem artichoke and chicory
Jerusalem artichoke and chicory belong to the sunflower family and are important sources of a type of soluble fiber known as inulin.
Suggested read: 7 important supplements you need on a vegan diet
Inulin is prebiotic, which means it helps stimulate the growth of bacteria in the gut, promoting digestive health. It’s particularly beneficial for Bifidobacteria.
A review of research on inulin and constipation found that inulin increases stool frequency, improves consistency, and decreases gut transit time. It also has a mild bulking effect by increasing bacterial mass in stools.
A recent study in 44 healthy adults with constipation found that taking 0.4 ounces (12 grams) of inulin from chicory per day increased stool frequency and softness.
Jerusalem artichokes are tubers that have a nutty flavor. You can find them in most supermarkets, sometimes under the name sunchokes or topinambur. They can be roasted, steamed, boiled, or mashed.
Chicory root is not commonly found in supermarkets but has become a popular coffee alternative in its ground form.
Summary: Jerusalem artichokes and chicory contain a prebiotic called inulin, which can enhance gut health and improve the frequency and consistency of stool.
Scientific research shows that artichokes have a prebiotic effect, promoting good gut health and regularity.
Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates like inulin that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut, increasing their numbers and protecting against the growth of harmful bacteria.
One older study found that people who ate 10 grams of fiber extracted from artichokes every day for 3 weeks had greater numbers of beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria. It also found that levels of harmful bacteria in the gut decreased.
Additionally, prebiotics have been found to increase stool frequency and improve stool consistency in people with constipation.
Cooked artichokes can be eaten hot or cold. The outer petals can be pulled off, and the pulpy part can be eaten with a sauce or dip. The heart of the artichoke can be scooped out and cut into pieces.
Summary: Artichokes are packed with prebiotics like inulin, which can increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut to increase stool frequency and consistency.
Rhubarb is a leafy plant that’s well known for its bowel-stimulating properties.
It contains a compound known as sennoside A, more commonly known as Senna, a popular herbal laxative.
A study in rats found that sennoside A from rhubarb works by decreasing levels of aquaporin 3, a protein that regulates the movement of water in the intestines.
A lower level of aquaporin 3 means less water is moved from the colon back into the bloodstream, leaving stools softer and promoting bowel movements.
Furthermore, 1 cup (122 grams) of rhubarb contains 2.2 grams of dietary fiber, which provides 9% of the recommended daily intake for fiber.
Suggested read: Iron deficiency: Symptoms, signs, and causes
The leaves of the rhubarb plant cannot be eaten, but the stalks can be sliced and boiled. Rhubarb has a tart flavor and is often sweetened and added to pies, tarts, and crumbles. It can also be added to oats or muesli for a fiber-rich breakfast.
Summary: Rhubarb is high in fiber and contains sennoside A, a compound that helps soften stools and promote bowel movements.
11. Sweet potato
Sweet potatoes contain a good amount of fiber to help alleviate constipation.
One medium sweet potato (about 150 grams) contains 3.6 grams of fiber, which is 14% of the recommended daily intake.
Sweet potatoes contain mostly insoluble fiber in the form of cellulose and lignin. They also contain the soluble fiber pectin.
Insoluble fiber can aid bowel movements by adding bulk and weight to stools.
One study looked at the effects of eating sweet potatoes on people undergoing chemotherapy, which can cause constipation.
After just 4 days of eating 7 ounces (200 grams) of sweet potato per day, participants experienced improved symptoms of constipation and reported less straining and discomfort compared with the control group.
Sweet potato can be roasted, steamed, boiled, or mashed. It can also be used in any recipe that calls for regular potatoes.
Suggested read: The 4 best supplements to gain weight
Summary: Sweet potatoes are a great source of insoluble fiber, which can add bulk to stools to prevent constipation.
12. Beans, peas, and lentils
Beans, peas, and lentils — also known as pulses — are one of the cheapest, fiber-packed food groups you can include in your diet.
For example, 1 cup (182 grams) of cooked navy beans, the type used for baked beans, contains a whopping 19.1 grams of fiber, which is 76% of the recommended daily intake.
Furthermore, in just one-half cup (99 grams) of cooked lentils, there are 7.8 grams of fiber, meeting 31% of your daily needs.
Pulses contain a mix of both insoluble and soluble fiber. This means they can alleviate constipation by adding bulk and weight to stools, as well as softening them to facilitate passage.
To include more pulses in your diet, try adding them to soups, blending them to make healthy dips, including them in salads, or adding them into ground-meat dishes for extra bulk and taste.
Summary: Pulses such as beans, peas, and lentils contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which can help soften and add bulk to the stool.
13. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are one of the most fiber-dense foods available. Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds contains 9.8 grams of fiber, meeting 39% of your daily needs.
The fiber in chia comprises 85% insoluble fiber and 15% soluble fiber.
When chia comes into contact with water, it forms a gel. In the gut, this can help soften stools and make them easier to pass.
What’s more, chia can absorb up to 12 times its weight in water, which can help add bulk and weight to stools.
Chia seeds are very versatile and can be added to many foods, considerably boosting the fiber content without too much effort.
They work perfectly sprinkled onto cereal, oats, or yogurt. You can also add them into a smoothie or veggie juice, or mix them into dips, salad dressings, baked goods, or desserts.
Summary: Chia seeds are loaded with soluble fiber, which forms a gel-like consistency in the digestive tract to soften and ease stool passage.
Flaxseeds have been used for centuries as a traditional remedy for constipation, thanks to their natural laxative effects.
In addition to numerous other health benefits, flaxseeds are rich in both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber, making them an ideal digestive aid.
Just 1 tablespoon (9 grams) of whole flaxseeds contains 2.5 grams of fiber, meeting 10% of your daily needs.
One 2012 study in mice found that those fed a flaxseed-supplemented diet had shortened small intestinal transit time and increased stool weight and frequency.
The researchers suggested that insoluble fiber acts like a sponge in the large intestine, retaining water, increasing bulk, and softening the stool. Meanwhile, the soluble fiber promotes bacterial growth, adding mass to stools.
Suggested read: 8 foods and beverages to avoid with arthritis
Additionally, short-chain fatty acids are produced during the bacterial fermentation of soluble fiber, which increases motility and stimulates bowel movements.
Interestingly, researchers have suggested that flaxseeds’ laxative effect may be attributed to their oil content, which may have lubricant properties.
You can eat flaxseed on cereal and yogurt or use it in muffins, bread, and cakes.
However, not everyone should use flaxseed. Pregnant and lactating women are often advised to exercise caution when using flaxseed, although more research is needed.
Summary: Flaxseeds are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber and can increase the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
15. Whole-grain rye bread
Rye bread is a traditional bread in many parts of Europe and is rich in dietary fiber.
Two slices (about 64 grams) of whole-grain rye bread contain 3.7 grams of dietary fiber, meeting 15% of the recommended daily intake.
Research has found rye bread to be more effective at relieving constipation than regular wheat bread or laxatives.
One 2010 study in 51 adults with constipation investigated the effects of eating 8.5 ounces (240 grams) of rye bread per day.
Participants who ate rye bread showed a 23% decrease in intestinal transit times, on average, compared with those who ate wheat bread. They also experienced softened stools, as well as increased frequency and ease of bowel movements.
Rye bread can be used in place of regular white wheat bread. It’s usually denser and darker than regular bread and has a stronger flavor.
Suggested read: Lactose intolerance: Causes, symptoms and treatment
Summary: Whole grain rye bread is a good source of fiber and has been shown to increase the frequency of bowel movements while also decreasing intestinal transit time.
16. Oat bran
Oat bran is the fiber-rich outer casing of the oat grain.
It has significantly more fiber than the commonly used quick oats. One-third cup (31 grams) of oat bran contains 4.8 grams of fiber, compared with 2.7 grams in quick oats.
Although more research is needed, two older studies have shown the positive effects of oat bran on bowel function.
First, one study from the United Kingdom showed that eating two oat-bran biscuits per day significantly improved the frequency and consistency of bowel movements and reduced pain in participants ages 60–80.
Another study in nursing home residents in Austria found that adding 7–8 grams of oat bran to their diet per day resulted in a significant reduction in laxative use.
Oat bran can easily be combined with granola mixes and baked into bread or muffins.
Summary: Oat bran is brimming with fiber and has been shown to improve bowel function and reduce constipation in some older studies.
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that originated in the Caucasus mountains in West Asia. The word kefir is derived from a Turkish word meaning “pleasant taste”.
It’s a probiotic, which means it contains bacteria and yeasts that benefit your health when ingested. Kefir contains various species of microorganisms, depending on the source.
One 4-week study had 20 participants drink 17 ounces (500 mL) of kefir per day after their morning and evening meals. At the end of the study, participants used fewer laxatives and experienced improvements in stool frequency and consistency.
Another study in 45 people with inflammatory bowel disease found that drinking 13.5 ounces (400 mL) of kefir twice daily improved the composition of the gut microbiome and decreased symptoms like bloating.
Kefir can be enjoyed plain or added to smoothies and salad dressings. It can also be mixed in with cereals and topped with fruits, flaxseeds, chia seeds, or oat bran to add some fiber.
Summary: Kefir is rich in probiotics and has been shown to improve gut health and prevent constipation.
The bottom line
Many fruits, vegetables, pulses, and seeds can help relieve constipation.
A high fiber diet helps add bulk and weight to stools, soften them, and stimulate bowel movements. However, in some people, high fiber diets can make constipation worse, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.
In addition, it’s vital to drink plenty of water. Keep in mind that your fluid requirements will increase when you increase your fiber intake.
Suggested read: Binge eating disorder: Symptoms, causes, and asking for help
Regular exercise is another critical factor in improving symptoms of constipation and developing healthy bowel habits.
If you have constipation, try to gradually introduce some of the foods above to your diet, as well as drink plenty of water and engage in physical exercise, to improve your regularity, stool consistency, and overall comfort.