About 14% of people experience chronic constipation at some point (1).
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 for others it’s a chronic condition.
Constipation has a variety of causes but is often the result of slow movement of food through the digestive system.
This may be due to dehydration, poor diet, medications, illness, diseases affecting the nervous system or mental disorders.
Fortunately, certain foods can help relieve constipation by adding bulk, softening the 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 2 grams of fiber per 1-ounce (28-gram) serving, or about three prunes. This is 8% of the American Heart Association's recommended daily intake of fiber (2, 3).
The insoluble fiber in prunes, known as cellulose, increases the amount of water in the stool, which adds bulk. Meanwhile, the soluble fiber in prunes is fermented in the colon to produce short-chain fatty acids, which also increase stool weight (4).
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 (4, 5).
One study in 40 people with constipation found that eating 100 grams of prunes per day significantly improved stool frequency and consistency, compared to treatment with psyllium, a type of dietary fiber (6).
You can enjoy prunes on their own or in salads, cereals, oatmeal, baked goods, smoothies and savory stews.
Approximately 2.8 grams of that fiber is insoluble, while 1.2 grams is soluble fiber, mostly in the form of the dietary fiber called pectin (8).
One study in 80 people with constipation found that pectin can accelerate the movement of the stool through the intestines, improve symptoms of constipation and increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut (11).
Another study found that rats fed a diet of apple fiber had increased stool frequency and weight, despite being given morphine, which causes constipation (12).
Apples are an easy way to boost the fiber content of your diet and alleviate constipation. You can eat them whole, juiced or in salads or baked goods. Granny Smith apples have a particularly high fiber content (13).
Pears are another fruit rich in fiber, with about 5.5 grams of fiber in a medium-sized fruit (about 178 grams). That is 22% of the recommended daily fiber intake (14).
Fructose is a type of sugar that is poorly absorbed in some people. This means that some of it ends up in the colon, where it pulls in water by osmosis, stimulating a bowel movement (16).
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.
You can get about 2.3 grams of fiber per kiwifruit (about 76 grams), which is 9% of the recommended daily intake (17).
In one study, 38 people over age 60 were given one kiwifruit per 66 pounds (30 kg) of body weight per day. This resulted in an increased frequency and ease of defecation. It also softened and increased the bulk of stools (18).
Another study in people with constipation found that eating two kiwifruits daily for four weeks resulted in more spontaneous bowel movements, a reduction in laxative use and overall increased satisfaction with bowel habits (19).
Furthermore, a third study gave 54 people with irritable bowel syndrome two kiwifruits per day for four weeks. At the end of the study, participants reported increased frequency of bowel movements and faster colonic transit times (20).
It’s not just the fiber in kiwifruit that’s thought to fight constipation. An enzyme known as actinidain is also hypothesized to be responsible for kiwifruit’s positive effects on gut motility and bowel habits (21, 22, 23).
Kiwifruits 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.
Figs are a great way to boost your fiber intake and promote healthy bowel habits.
One medium-sized raw fig (about 50 grams) contains 1.6 grams of fiber. Moreover, just half a cup (75 grams) of dried figs contains 7.3 grams of fiber, which is almost 30% of your daily requirements (24, 25).
A study in dogs investigated the effects of fig paste on constipation over a three-week period. It found that fig paste increased stool weight and reduced intestinal transit time (26).
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 up colonic transit, improved stool consistency and alleviated stomach discomfort (27).
Interestingly, figs contain an enzyme called ficain, which is similar to the enzyme actinidain found in kiwifruit. It is thought this may contribute to its positive effects on bowel function, alongside its high fiber content (21, 23).
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 in salads.
Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits and mandarins are a refreshing snack and a good source of fiber.
For example, one orange (about 131 grams) contains 3.1 grams of fiber, which is 13% of the recommended daily fiber intake. Meanwhile, one grapefruit (about 236 grams) contains 2.6 grams of fiber, meeting 10% of your daily needs (28, 29).
In addition, citrus fruits contain a flavanol called naringenin, which may contribute to the positive effects of citrus fruits on constipation (31).
It’s best to eat citrus fruits fresh to make sure you get the maximum amount of fiber and vitamin C. Oranges and mandarins are a handy snack food, and grapefruit goes well in a salad or cut in half for breakfast.
Greens such as spinach, Brussels sprouts and broccoli are not only rich in fiber but also great sources of vitamin C, vitamin K and folate.
These greens help add bulk and weight to stools, which makes them easier to pass through the gut.
One cup of cooked spinach contains 4.3 grams of fiber, or 17% of your 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 (33).
Though they’re unpopular with some, Brussels sprouts are super healthy, and many people find them tasty. Just five sprouts contain 10% of your daily fiber needs for only 36 calories. They can be boiled, steamed, grilled or roasted and are good hot or cold (34).
Broccoli contains 3.6 grams of fiber in just one stalk (about 150 grams). This is equivalent to 16% of your recommended daily fiber intake. It can be cooked and added into soups and stews, as well as eaten raw in salads or as a snack (35).
Jerusalem artichoke and chicory belong to the sunflower family and are important sources of a type of soluble fiber known as inulin (36).
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 the bacterial mass in the stool (37, 38).
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 (39).
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.
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 the gut, increasing their numbers and protecting against the growth of harmful bacteria (40).
One study found that people who ate 10 grams of fiber extracted from artichokes every day for three weeks had greater numbers of beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria. It also found that levels of harmful bacteria in the gut decreased (41).
Additionally, prebiotics have been found to increase stool frequency and improve stool consistency in people with constipation (42).
Cooked artichokes can be eaten hot or cold. The outer petals can be pulled off and the pulpy part eaten with a sauce or dip. The heart of the artichoke can be scooped out and cut into pieces.
Rhubarb is a leafy plant that is well known for its bowel-stimulating properties.
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 (45).
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 your recommended daily fiber intake (46).
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.
Sweet potatoes contain a good amount of fiber to help alleviate constipation.
One medium-sized sweet potato (about 114 grams) contains 3.8 grams of fiber, which is 15% of the recommended daily intake (47).
Sweet potatoes contain mostly insoluble fiber in the form of cellulose and lignin. They also contain the soluble fiber pectin (48).
Insoluble fiber can aid bowel movements by adding bulk and weight to stools (49).
One study looked at the effects of eating sweet potato on people undergoing chemotherapy (50).
After just four days of eating 200 grams of sweet potato per day, participants experienced improved symptoms of constipation and reported less straining and discomfort, compared to the control group (50).
Sweet potato can be roasted, steamed, boiled or mashed. It can be used in any recipe that calls for regular potatoes.
Beans, peas and lentils are also known as pulses, 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 almost 80% of the recommended daily intake (51).
Furthermore, in just one-half cup (99 grams) of cooked lentils, there are 7.8 grams of fiber, meeting 31% of your daily needs (52).
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.
The fiber in chia is made up of 85% insoluble fiber and 15% soluble (54).
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 (55).
What's more, chia can absorb up to 12 times its own weight in water, which can help add bulk and weight to stools (56).
Chia is very versatile and can be added into many different foods, considerably boosting 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.
Flaxseeds have been used for centuries as a traditional remedy for constipation, thanks to their natural laxative effects (57).
Just 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of whole flaxseeds contains 2.8 grams of fiber, meeting 11% of your daily needs (58).
One study in mice found that those fed a flaxseed-supplemented diet had shortened small intestinal transit time and increased stool frequency and stool weight (57).
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 the stool (57).
Additionally, short-chain fatty acids are produced during the bacterial fermentation of soluble fiber, which increases motility and stimulates bowel movements (57).
You can eat flaxseed on cereal or yogurt and use it in muffins, breads and cakes.
However, not everyone should use flaxseed. Pregnant and lactating women are often advised to avoid it because it may stimulate menstruation (59).
Rye bread is a traditional bread in many parts of Europe and rich in dietary fiber.
Research has found rye bread to be more effective at relieving constipation than regular wheat bread or laxatives (61).
One study in 51 adults with constipation investigated the effects of eating 8.5 ounces (240 grams) of rye bread per day (61).
Participants who ate rye bread showed a 23% decrease in intestinal transit times, on average, compared to those who ate wheat bread. They also experienced softened stools and increased frequency and ease of bowel movements (61).
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.
Oat bran is the fiber-rich outer casing of the oat grain.
Two studies have shown the positive effects of oat bran on bowel function.
First, a study from the UK showed that eating two oat-bran biscuits per day significantly improved the frequency and consistency of bowel movements and reduced pain in participants aged 60–80 (64).
A different study in nursing home residents in Austria found that adding 7–8 grams of oat bran to the diet per day resulted in a significant reduction in laxative use (65).
Oat bran can easily be combined with granola mixes and baked into bread or muffins.
It is 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 (66).
One four-week study had 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 (66).
Additionally, a study in rats fed kefir showed increased moisture and bulk in the stool, which would make it easier to pass (67).
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.
There are many fruits, vegetables, pulses and seeds that can help relieve constipation.
A diet high in fiber 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 to your healthcare provider about what is 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.
Regular exercise is another critical factor in improving symptoms of constipation and developing a healthy bowel habit.
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.