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Have you noticed a recent change in your bathroom habits? Have you been having fewer bowel movements than usual? Do you have to strain to go? These are all signs of constipation, a common digestive health problem.

Although no one likes to think -- let alone talk -- about constipation, most everyone experiences it at one time or another. In fact, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, more than 4 million people in the U.S. have frequent constipation. So if you're dealing with tummy troubles, you're not alone. Most of the time, say health experts, it's a temporary problem, and making simple changes can help your digestive system run smoothly again.

Common Causes of Constipation

To understand how to prevent constipation, it helps to know what causes it. As food passes through the large intestine, water is absorbed and food waste products form into stool. Muscle contractions move stools through the colon to the rectum, where they are passed as feces. When this process slows down, stools become dry and hard to pass, causing constipation.

Common culprits include a low-fiber or high-fat diet, lack of exercise, and not drinking enough fluids. Certain medications, not going when you feel the urge, laxative abuse, and pregnancy can also lead to constipation.

Fiber Helps Relieve Constipation

If your bowel habits get sluggish, you don't have to rush out to buy a laxative. Most people don't need them for mild constipation. Instead, look at your diet. Namely, are you getting enough fiber?

Fiber is the part of plant foods that the body can't break down. When you eat high-fiber foods, this extra bulk helps keep stools soft and speeds digestion.

All plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, contain fiber. The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 grams of fiber per day for women and up to 38 grams for men. After age 50, we need less fiber -- about 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men. Unfortunately, most of us only get about 15 grams per day, which may help explain why so many people have digestive health problems.

Examples of high-fiber foods include:

  • ½ cup navy beans: 9.5 grams (g)
  • 1 small pear: 4.4 g
  • ¼ cup dates: 3.6 g
  • 1 medium apple: 3.3 grams
  • 1 medium sweet potato: 4.8 g

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