I apologize for being MIA lately, if you follow me on instagram (@how_to_eat_RD) you know we’re in the process of moving and that it’s totally crazy! I hope that things will be back to normal shortly. In the meantime, I’ve got a long one for you today!
In a previous post, I said nobody would ever write this article. Well folks, at the request of a dear friend I have been convinced to do it.
I’m not too shy to tell people that the first year of undergrad was all about poop. To be a dietitian, one must understand digestion. To feed people appropriately, one must know how the food or tube feeding will affect a person’s digestion, including whether they will poop in a healthy manner. PSA: if you’re not pooping every day, you’re doing it wrong. And it shouldn’t be a struggle. I’m telling you, I taught my college boyfriend all about how to build a great salad at the dining hall and he said that he had never pooped so well in his life. I bet I can get a testimonial if anyone’s interested.
Why it matters
In all seriousness, it’s more than just a comfort issue. If you’re someone who has chronic constipation, you could be at risk for hemorrhoids, fecal impaction, rectal prolapse, and tearing of the anus. All of these things are really shitty (HAHA!), add further discomfort, and can require surgery to correct. Surgical procedures are expensive, invasive, and carry risks that can be avoided if you just pay attention to your poop!
Nutrients of concern
Soluble Fiber – Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance in water. Any hippies reading this are probably familiar with chia seeds in their water or kombucha, and anyone who grew up in the late 70s or the 80s knows too: when you soak these seeds in water they turn into a weird jelly-like substance that you smear onto your terra cotta bunny or (nowadays) Barack Obama. Soluble fiber does the same thing in your gut. You can imagine that this slimy substance slides easily through your intestines, and for this reason it’s an important component of pooping like a pro. Soluble fiber is found in other seeds like flax and poppy seeds, nuts, lots of fruits, whole grains, and many vegetables.
Insoluble Fiber – Insoluble fiber is the “woody” parts of vegetables, and it gives them their rigidity. Think the stringy things in celery, but a lot of insoluble fiber is not as tough as that because it’s really tiny and makes up the structure of plants. Insoluble fiber does not turn into a gel in water, but instead holds its shape, “adding bulk to stool”. We would always say this in class – “adds bulk to stool” – I don’t know anyone who calls poop stool, but okay. What that means is this: you have to poop out something, right? You can’t digest fiber, so this structural fiber makes up most of what ends up in the toilet, along with other waste products. If you don’t have enough insoluble fiber in your diet, your body has trouble moving waste products along the alimentary canal and you could end up constipated. Insoluble fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. (SIDE NOTE – the reason whole grains are brown is because of the bran, which is packed with fiber. Ever notice how you don’t poop so well if you eat white bread and white rice for a few days? #TEAMWHOLEGRAIN)
Water – In order for digestion to happen at all, we need water. Insoluble fiber needs water to form a gel. Water just keeps things flowin’. It’s especially important to increase water when you bump up your fiber intake.
Other things that affect your pooping prowess
Jog it out – Exercise also helps with regularity. Think about it – you’re jostling your guts to get things moving and gravity helps peristalsis (the rhythmic contraction of your intestines that normally moves things long). While being constipated doesn’t exactly make anyone want to get up and run, it actually can help.
Caffeine – caffeine is not a nutrient, but it is a dietary chemical that is found in many foods. I mentioned peristalsis previously, and caffeine can increase the speed and force of these contractions just as it can increase the speed and force of other muscle contractions. Because of effect on muscles, caffeine has been shown time and time again to aid athletic performance. Maybe you should combine your caffeine with a jog around the block to really get things started!
Processed foods – I’ve touched on this but white bread, white rice, fast food, and pre-packaged meals are all (most frequently) VERY LOW FIBER OPTIONS. Have you ever noticed that after you’ve been eating “well” for a while then you go on a road trip or something and are forced to eat refined grains and generally crap foods all the time it’s nearly impossible to poop? That’s because you’ve consumed almost NO fiber. Remember when we talked about how important it is? Don’t forget. I’m willing to compromise with you on the road trips though, Whataburger has a whole wheat bun and most gas stations nowadays have some sort of fruit to accompany that giant bag of Now & Laters. In normal day-to-day eating, processed foods should be kept to a minimum.
Supplements – If you take calcium or (especially) iron supplements, you may have some constipation issues. However, if you need these supplements (as evidenced by your doctor or dietitian telling you so) then stay on them. We will get you pooping, no worries.
Laxatives – Laxatives can create dependence if you take them too frequently, so try not to rely on them. There are a lot of different kinds of laxatives, and some are better for you than others. Some are actually just stimulants like caffeine and act to push things along more quickly by increasing the speed and force of peristalsis. Some are just fiber. Some are not. Let’s try to get regular with our diet first, then consider laxatives.
Foods to help you achieve bowel movement bliss
1. ALL THE VEGETABLES – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, make half your plate fruits and/or vegetables! Focus on the vegetables! So few people get the amount of vegetables they should be eating, and why? I certainly don’t know. Packing meals with vegetables allows you to eat a greater volume for fewer calories, gives you all the vitamins and minerals and antioxidants you could ever want, and fills you with fiber – both soluble and insoluble – for smoooooth moves. Gross (*shudders*) but true. Be sure to drink lots of water when you increase vegetable consumption!
2. Beans – Beans beans, the magical fruit! The more you eat the more you toot! Beans are packed with more fiber than just about anything else you could ever eat (and are especially high in soluble fiber for all the high cholesterol people among us). Certain types of fiber can be the cause of excessive flatulence that is often associated with beans, but if you soak them and discard the soaking water, or if you rinse your canned beans this can be mostly washed away. You’ll still be left with a high fiber food that will definitely help things get moving.
3. Whole grains – Brown rice, whole grain breads and cereals, side dishes made from barley, quinoa, farro, bulgur, amaranth, etc. are a GOOD thing. High in both soluble and insoluble fiber, these foods are healthy for you for many reasons but will most definitely keep you regular.
4. Ground flaxseed – I could list basically any seed here, but ground flax is a cheap and easy one to keep on hand and incorporate into foods, and supplies the added benefit of omega-3 fatty acids (helps lower cholesterol, decrease inflammation). If you have a spice grinder or coffee grinder, you may wish to keep the whole seeds and grind as you go, as this keeps the omega-3s from degrading. The whole unground flaxseeds will help you poop, but you won’t be able to digest through the tough outer hull of the seed to get to the fatty acids inside. If you prefer to buy it ground, store the ground flax in your freezer and you should be fine. Add a scoop to your oatmeal, cereal, smoothies, baked goods, etc. You won’t taste it and it two tablespoons provide 4g of fiber with barely any effort on your part. Excellent!
5. Berries – Berries are especially high in fiber because of the seeds they contain. Think about it: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries all have TONS of tiny little seeds that all have a tough outer shell. This shell is made of insoluble fiber, great for a happy digestive system. *NOTE* if you have diverticulosis, these seeds can get caught in your diverticula and cause pain and inflammation and should be avoided. If you have no idea what I just said, don’t worry about it.
6. Pears – For some reason pears have an especially high fiber content. Eat them for a snack, add them to salads and cereals, or simmer with cinnamon for a low sugar, high fiber dessert.
7. Coffee – It wakes you up and gets you moving! Check out this post for guidance on coffee.
8. Dried fruits – You’ve heard of people eating prunes to stay regular. But have you ever wondered why? Dried fruits contain fiber, but they’ve also got a high concentration of sugar, which means they also drive osmosis while in the gut. If you don’t know what osmosis is, check out this rap lecture by a goofy white guy (you’re welcome). Simply put, it draws water into the intestines. More water = better poops. Dry, hard food masses don’t move through your system nearly as well as moist ones. In fact, when people have gastric bypass surgery and have portions of their intestine removed, they can’t have simple sugars because of osmosis – the shortening of the intestine means that there is less surface area for water to get absorbed back into the body. So, if they eat something sugary and a bunch of water is drawn towards it they get a thing called “dumping syndrome” which is exactly what it sounds like. That water never has a chance to be reabsorbed.
9. Low-fat dairy and red meat – This one is mostly for the ladies. A lot of us have issues with anemia and low bone density, and we take calcium and iron supplements for it. “Black, tarry stools” is literally a listed side effect on the packaging of most iron supplements. This stuff can really block you up! Calcium supplements can also have a constipating effect. While low-fat dairy and red meat won’t actually help you poop, they might help you come off supplements by increasing your dietary calcium and iron. If you don’t eat red meat, cooking with a cast iron skillet and loading up on iron rich veggies can be helpful (though vegetable iron is not as easily used by the body). Low-fat dairy like yogurt, cheese, and milk is an important component of a healthy diet. Ladies, it’s not fair that our bones are weaker but we can lift heavy weights and eat cheese sticks to combat it.
10. Shitty beer* – Most of us went to college once, or at least a college party, so I’m assuming the majority of people reading this have experienced “the beer shits“. This phenomenon (while not scientifically proven because that would be morally incorrect) has been found by some to be especially potent when drinking bad light beer in mass quantities, though it could just be the bad beer alone or the volume imbibed at these sorts of shindigs, but who would really know? Professionally and personally, I would advise you to try a laxative before you reach this stage; but we’re getting towards graduation time so I’m sure you could hit up your local university and challenge the nearest sorority chick to a kegstand contest on a lukewarm barrel of Bud Light. #YOLO.
*This is totally a joke guys. Just eat your vegetables.