Switching to a plant-based diet can be life-changing. A menu brimming with vegetables boosts energy, aids in maintaining or losing unwanted weight, combats anxiety and depression, and supports efforts against animal cruelty. Simply put, plants are miracle workers for the mind, body, and world.
With that said, switching to a plant-based diet needs adjustment, therefore proceed with knowledge and caution.
It’s a topic society doesn’t necessarily want to broach, and yet everyone will suffer from this pervasive symptom in their lifetime. We’re talking about constipation. Constipation not only causes bloat, nausea, and pain, but it can send some people to the emergency room. For new-to-the-scene vegans, plant-based diets can cause digestive upset due to the dramatic increase in dietary fiber.
Look to your diet to help solve these issues!
While that increase in veggies may be the problem, they are also the solution. Plants offer a great source of vitamins and minerals — such as vitamins A and C, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and iron — as well as a high level of insoluble fiber. They are natural peacemakers for a body whose rhythm may be a little skewed.
A recent study estimated that 16 percent of Americans suffer from chronic constipation. Keep in mind, this 16 percent doesn’t include non-chronic sufferers. Between both types, chronic and non-chronic, 2.5 million visit their physician and on average 700,000 go to the emergency room every year to seek medical attention for discomfort and complications caused by constipation.
With such a common ailment, so many people don’t actually know what it is or what causes it.
To begin, it’s important to understand that constipation is a symptom. Your body is telling you that something is wrong. The cause may stem from one or more of a few factors including an underlying disease or condition, mental health (stress, depression, trauma, or anxiety), and diet.
We’re going to focus on diet.
A large part of deconstructing constipation is becoming familiar with its physical origination – the digestive system. The digestive system is “a group of organs working together to convert food into energy and basic nutrients to feed the entire body.” The central cog is the alimentary canal, or gastrointestinal tract, which includes the oral cavity, esophagus, small and large intestines, stomach, and pharynx. Symptoms begin when stool slows down or lodges in the large intestine. This blockage results in abdominal bloating, cramps, gas, moderate to severe pain, nausea, and even more serious physical manifestations such as hemorrhoids and anal fissures.
Constipation as a symptom is linked to various conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and a host of other diseases. With that said, barring a pre-existing disease or condition, constipation is generally instigated by a lack of fruits and vegetables in conjunction with a high level of processed foods. Therefore, diet and lifestyle can play a role in combating constipation.
Dealing with constipation is not only a physical issue but can become a mental hardship, as well. Beyond the physical discomforts, there is also the negative stigma surrounding constipation. Changing your lifestyle to incorporate healthy digestive habits is one of the best prescriptions on the market. The three main ingredients to help improve your digestive system and alleviate constipation are diet, exercise, and hydration.
Dietary fiber, the parts of plant-based foods that are indigestible, keeps your rhythm rhythmic and your body happy and healthy. This essential dietary ingredient is found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Fiber is broken into two groups: soluble and insoluble. While soluble fiber — oats, citrus fruits, and barley — lowers blood cholesterol and glucose levels, insoluble fiber — nuts, beans, and vegetables — helps food waste move quickly through the large intestine.
Increasing the amount of insoluble fiber in your diet is a great way to combat constipation. While the amount of fiber varies depending on age, gender, and physical condition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends “25 grams per day for women and up to 38 grams for men.”
Exercise and the Large Intestine
To understand how exercise helps with constipation, we’ve got to get back to the digestive system, specifically the large intestine. The large intestine also referred to as the colon or large bowel acts as our waste management system by absorbing water and storing feces before they make their way out of the body.
There are a few benefits of exercise to help alleviate and reduce instances of constipation. First, exercise moves food through your intestines quicker, which reduces the amount of water absorbed from the food waste in the large intestine. In short, your stool stays moister and softer, which is easier to pass. Second, during aerobic exercise, your heart rate naturally increases. An increased heart rate stimulates “the natural contraction of intestinal muscles,” which gets your ‘material’ moving quicker.
Don’t make your large intestine do all the work.
While exercise decreases the amount of water absorbed from the material passing through, you should also focus on hydrating your body so that it doesn’t need to absorb water. When your body is dehydrated, it turns to the closest and easiest water source — food waste. Similar to the benefits of exercise, when your body is hydrated your food waste remains moist and soft and therefore travels through the large intestine with speed and agility.
It sounds easy, yet remembering to drink enough water can be challenging. Here are some easy tips to help you get and stay hydrated:
- Create a schedule based on your daily routine. Drink a glass when you wake up or with breakfast. Drink a glass on your break at work and at lunch. Drink before and after a workout. Drink a glass at dinner.
- Buy a sustainable and durable water bottle. If you don’t mind spending a little more, you can buy technically savvy water bottles that remind you to drink more, keep your water cooler longer, and even track your drinking habits.
- Combat fake hunger cravings by drinking a glass of water when you feel hungry. It’s also helpful to add natural flavoring such as lemon to stave the hunger pangs.
Common Causes of Constipation
Knowing how to combat constipation is only half of the battle. It’s important to become familiar with the types of foods that can cause or worsen constipation. These foods don’t have to be avoided altogether but simply eaten in moderation. If you are in transition into a plant-based diet, it may be best to avoid these foods in the onset and slowly integrate them into your system.
For those transitioning to a plant-based diet, raw vegetables can oftentimes be rough on your digestive system. While it’s true that vegetables are high in insoluble fiber when eaten raw the processing of this high volume fiber can result in constipation and bloat. The problem stems not from your digestive tract necessarily, but when your gut bacteria are destabilized due to an increase in fiber. Gut bacteria plays an integral role in your overall physical and mental health and when they “are unable to break down the foods” you become constipated.
As Medicinenet.com puts it, bananas are a constipation conundrum. When ripe, bananas are chalk full of potassium (about 422mg) and fiber (3.1 grams), both of which lend a hand in heart and digestive system health. With that said, tread lightly. Unripe bananas can be the culprit of a backed up system due to their high starch content. Starch is a polysaccharide, a part of the carbohydrate family, and is made of multiple sugar compounds. The complex makeup of starch makes it difficult for the body to process and break down. As a result, food waste becomes backed up.
Caffeine is yet another conundrum. Caffeine is actually a diuretic, which helps the body void waste and can oftentimes cause diarrhea. Therefore, when you drink caffeinated drinks, such as coffee, you will see an uptick in urination. With that said, there is only an increase in urination when at least 360mg of coffee, that’s about two eight-ounce cups, is consumed.
The connection to constipation is linked directly to the possible dehydrating effects of overdoing your morning coffee. As we talked about earlier, dehydration can cause the large intestine to siphon more water from food waste and therefore produces harder and dryer stool.
It’s all about balance!
If you are already constipated, it’s best to avoid coffee and focus on heavy hitting hydrating liquids such as tea and water. Also, to avoid constipation, make sure you are consuming a balanced amount of water while drinking coffee.
Processed grains, such as white bread, rice, and pasta, are on the opposite spectrum of whole grains. While whole grains have a large amount of fiber from bran, the process of creating processed grains removes the bran, as well as the germ. Processed grains are also part of the carbohydrate family, which are sugar based and can be difficult for the body to break down and process. Combine these two factors and you find yourself with a backed up large intestine.
Plant-Based Foods That Fight Constipation
Now, let’s take a look at a few constipation fighting foods. For newbie vegans, it’s a good idea to include some of these stomach friendly foods in your weekly menu. So, we’ve provided some of the best recipes from the Food Monster App to help you get ahead of the issue. That way, you can avoid constipation all together and help regulate a healthy digestive rhythm from the onset.
Raw Plum and Prune Cheesecake Tart/One Green Planet
When backed up, turn to prunes.
Prunes are simply dried plums. They are chalk full of “laxative properties and high levels of insoluble fiber,” including dihydroxyphenyl isatin, a bowel simulator, as well as naturally occurring sorbitol, a sugar that attracts water and keeps stool moist.
The kiwi, a nutritious fruit identified by its furry rind and tangy green meat, has one up on the prune when it comes to constipation relief. Kiwis not only relieve constipation, but they also lack the unwelcome side effects — mainly bloating and gas — that prunes can cause. This tart and grainy fruit is a great addition to Asian inspired dishes such as this Thai Seared Tofu With Kiwi and can add a sour bite to sweet dishes such as these kiwi inspired tart dishes: Raw Kiwi Tart With Ginger, Mint, and Coconut and Raw Strawberry Kiwi Tart.
There’s really nothing broccoli can’t do. This cruciferous vegetable can boost your brain health, while also helping to cure a backed up digestive tract. As is the case in many constipation fighting foods, it’s the high fiber content that helps to alleviate the clog. Yet, it’s also important to note that, as with prunes, when eaten raw, broccoli can cause gas and bloating. Therefore, it’s best to cook your broccoli for the best results.
Along with easing constipation, broccoli is a great vegetable for vegetarian or vegan main dishes. It’s meaty texture and hearty fiber filled design is great for meatless vegan dinner recipes such as 10-Minute Seitan ‘Beef’ and Broccoli, Broccoli ‘Wings’, the Easiest ‘Cheddar’ Broccoli Soup, and Crispy Lemon Ginger Tofu With Broccoli.
While processed grain leads to constipation, whole grains can help relieve it. Whole grain simply means that all of the seed or grain is used. Whole grain products keep intact their high level of bran and germ that comes from the skin or shell of the seed. The main source of constipation relief stems from the high levels of fiber in whole grain products.
Whole grains, such as farro, barley, millet, and quinoa, add a tasty and texturized filler to complement a vegetable heavy dish. Try a few of these whole grain recipes to make classic dishes such as risotto, paella, and porridge: Rainbow Chard Wraps With Millet and Chickpeas, Vegetable Paella Risotto, Carrot Barley Risotto, and Teff Porridge With Blood Orange and Coconut Butter.
The Food Monster App offers over 10,000 vegetarian and vegan recipes chalk full of essential minerals and vitamins to help you create a balanced menu. It is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook.
Lead image source: Gallila-Photo/ Pixabay