Few foods are as beloved as chocolate. We give it to our sweethearts on Valentine’s Day and bake morsels of it into cookies. As much as people love chocolate, some people attribute one affliction to it. Many people say that chocolate makes them constipated. In fact, when researchers asked a group of people with chronic constipation or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which foods triggered their symptoms, most of them named chocolate as the culprit.

Is it true? Could this sweet treat cause such an unpleasant side effect? Or does the perception differ from the reality? Here’s a look at the link between chocolate and constipation.

What Is Constipation?

Constipation occurs when you don’t have as many bowel movements as usual. It’s technically defined as having less than three bowel movements per week.

People who are constipated produce hard, dry stools that are slower to move through the intestines. Although constipation isn’t life-threatening, it can be uncomfortable. Along with abdominal discomfort and bloating, you can develop hemorrhoids and tears in your anus if you’re constipated for a long time.

What Causes Constipation?

Constipation often stems from problems with your diet. Fiber and water make stools softer and easier to pass. If you don’t get enough fiber or water in your diet, you could become constipated.

Some medicines can cause constipation as a side effect. These include:

  • antacids
  • antiseizure medicines
  • blood pressure medicines
  • iron supplements
  • medicines for Parkinson’s disease
  • narcotic pain relievers
  • some antidepressants

Constipation can also stem from one of these health conditions:

  • diabetes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • stroke
  • other diseases that affect your brain or spine
  • spinal cord injuries
  • tumors in the intestines
  • an underactive thyroid gland, or hypothyroidism

Sometimes, constipation is a temporary result of a life change. Many women develop constipation during pregnancy due to changing hormone levels. Some people only get constipated when they travel. As you age, movement in your intestines slows and you’re more likely to become constipated.

How Does Chocolate Affect Constipation?

Studies haven’t confirmed that chocolate causes constipation, although some people claim they have more trouble going to the bathroom after eating it. It may not be the cocoa that’s to blame. Constipation could be the result of other ingredients in the chocolate. For example, chocolate bars and cakes contain milk, which some people find constipating.

Chocolate also contains caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration. A lack of water in your intestines makes stools dry and harder to pass. Chocolate-filled foods are typically high in sugar, which can also be tough on your bowels. Sugar often replaces healthier, high-fiber foods in your diet that keep your bowels moving regularly.

How Does Chocolate Affect Different Groups of People?

Your body’s response to chocolate may depend on what other conditions you have. For example, chocolate can trigger constipation in people with IBS. About 10 to 15 percent of Americans have IBS, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Why chocolate might contribute to constipation in people with IBS isn’t clear.

While chocolate is constipating to some people, cocoa or components of it might actually help with constipation in other people. In a 2006 study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers gave cocoa husks, which are the outside of the cocoa beans that are discarded during chocolate production, to chronically constipated children. The husks, which are high in fiber, helped the children go to the bathroom more often and made it easier to do so.

Read more: IBS home remedies that work »

How Much Chocolate Can You Eat Without Getting Constipated?

Whether you should eat chocolate and how frequently you should eat it depends on how it affects you. If chocolate doesn’t seem to cause constipation, there’s no reason to stop eating it. You should eat chocolate in moderation because it’s high in fat and calories, though.

If chocolate seems to make you constipated, try eliminating it from your diet and see if that helps. Once you feel better, you can slowly reintroduce chocolate a little at a time and see if you develop constipation again.

When Will Constipation Clear Up?

If your constipation is directly due to chocolate, it should clear up as soon as you remove cocoa-containing foods from your diet. However, if you stop eating chocolate and your constipation continues, something else may be triggering the condition. You may need to eliminate other foods to find the source or see your doctor for advice. 

How to Prevent Constipation

Lifestyle Changes

One of the best ways to avoid constipation is to make a few changes to your diet. Eat more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fiber adds bulk to your stools, which makes them easier to pass. Adults should get about 22 to 34 grams of fiber in their diet each day.

You should also increase your daily water intake. Fluid helps with stool movement.

Exercise should go along with diet. Fitness is good for every part of your body. Staying active optimizes healthy bowel function.

Also, don’t rush bathroom visits. Sit and give yourself time to go, so you know you’ve fully emptied your bowels.

Laxatives

If these lifestyle suggestions don’t work, you can try a laxative to help you go. Laxatives are available over the counter, and come in several forms:

  • Bulk-forming agents move more fluid into your intestines. They include Citrucel, FiberCon, and Metamucil.
  • Osmotic laxatives also increase the amount of fluid in stool. They include Milk of Magnesia and Miralax.
  • Stool softeners make stool softer by making it absorb more fluid. They include Colace and Surfak.

Stimulant laxatives are also an option. Brands include Correctol, Dulcolax, and Senokot. These work by moving stool through the intestine by triggering muscle contractions. These laxatives are harsher than the other types, and can cause side effects like abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Because of this, you shouldn’t stay on stimulant laxatives long term.

Your doctor can also prescribe medicines or suggest other treatments to relieve your constipation.