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No one likes to think -- let alone talk -- about constipation, but most everyone has it at one time or another. More than 40 million people in the U.S. have it pretty often. So if you're dealing with tummy troubles, you're not alone. Most of the time it doesn’t last long, and 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 your colon, your body absorbs the water from it, and what's left forms into stool. Your muscles move it through the colon to the rectum, where you pass it. When this movement slows down, your colon draws too much water. Stools get dry and hard to pass, causing constipation.

The problem often happens because of 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. Are you getting enough fiber?

Fiber is the part of plant foods that the body can't break down. When you eat foods that have a lot of it, the extra bulk helps keep stools soft and speeds digestion.

All plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, have fiber. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 25 grams 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 get constipated.

Examples of high-fiber foods include:

  • 1/2 cup navy beans: 9.5 grams
  • 1 small pear: 4.4 grams
  • 1/4 cup dates: 3.6 grams
  • 1 medium apple: 3.3 grams
  • 1 medium sweet potato: 4.8 grams

Ease Constipation on Vacation

How to avoid constipation while you're traveling or on vacation.
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