Um, Could Constipation Be A Sign You Aren't Eating Enough?
I know the last thing many people want to do when they are constipated is eat more. But what if I told you that eating more might be a solution to the uncomfortable problem? Constipation has several root causes, and undereating is a major one that often gets overlooked. Let's discuss...
How undereating can cause constipation.
My private practice specializes in digestive health, and we help many clients who are looking to relieve constipation. The first step in our work with these clients is assessing if they are eating enough of both calories and macronutrients (protein, healthy fat, and carbohydrates). And it turns out that many of them are undereating (and might be completely unaware of it), which is affecting their ability to have at least one healthy bowel movement every day.
Undereating can result in constipation in two ways: The first is from a lack of physical food moving from the gut, and the second is due to the hormonal shifts that occur when we are chronically under-fueling.
Lack of gut engagement.
The gut is a muscular organ that moves food through its long and winding digestive tract via muscles. We don't have direct control over these muscles, but they function very similarly to the skeletal muscles in our biceps and quadriceps. The rule is the same: If we don't use them, we lose them!
When we do not eat robust meals that include optimal levels of calories, macronutrients, and fiber, there is not enough physical roughage for the muscles in the gut to push against and move waste down and out of the gut. So very simply, eating enough food exercises the muscles of the gut so they can stay strong and prevent constipation.
The second layer of producing bowel movements involves your hormones and the adaptive protective shifts that can occur when the brain senses low resources in the form of calories or macronutrients.
Low caloric intake is a stressor on the body. When we are chronically undereating, our bodies experience a chronic stress response from the nervous system, which communicates to the body to conserve resources. When a stressor of low caloric intake is assessed, our hormones will shift the body's focus away from vitality and toward protection. These hormonal shifts can result in symptoms of constipation, but they can also present as fatigue or low energy, hair loss, irregular menstrual cycles, fertility issues, low libido, sugar cravings, poor sleep, bloating, and weight gain.
If any combination of these symptoms is present for you, then this is your invitation to get curious about how much you are eating and whether that is part of your healing puzzle.
What to do about it.
Symptoms such as constipation are a sign that our bodies are asking for more support. Choose to listen and respond to your body with gratitude and awe for all of the amazing functions it does for you every day. All of those functions require energy from food.
Undereating is not necessarily synonymous with eating disorders. It is a habit of many women and men in our 21st-century world where diet culture has led much of the conversation around nutrition and health for years. (However, if you suspect you have disordered eating, please consult with a trained specialist such as an eating disorder therapist, doctor, or dietitian. For more immediate resources, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.)
Here are our guidelines for how to assess and adjust calories to meet your body's needs, restore vitality, and start to heal constipation and under-fueling symptoms:
Identify your optimal caloric intake.
If you are a living, breathing adult, you need more than 2,000 calories/day, and even more if you exercise or are physically active. You can calculate your Total Daily Expenditure (TDE)—the total amount of calories your body expends every day—to get a more tailored picture of your optimal caloric intake.
Think about where you are—and where you want to go.
Tracking your nutrient intake in the short term can be helpful for identifying your current caloric intake (though I don't believe it is productive in the long term). Using a tracking tool such as CronoMeter for four or five days will give you an idea of how close you are to your calculated TDE from above.
If you are under that number, aim to gradually increase your calories by 100 to 200 per week until you get to your body's ideal calorie goal. Increasing your calories slowly will allow your body to reduce feelings of discomfort.
Choose to nourish your body.
Make the commitment to choose to nourish your body every day, at every meal. By increasing your calories and restoring nutrient deficiencies, you are teaching your body to move out of protection and into vitality.
The best part of refueling your body is that you will start to feel benefits such as improved energy, better focus, more balanced mood, fewer sugar cravings, better sleep, and of course, more complete and regular bowel movements.
Choosing to fuel your body is the first step to eliminating digestive symptoms like constipation. The greatest tool for optimal health is to be curious about your body's symptoms and to ensure your foundation is strong, starting at the most basic level: Are you eating enough?
Abigail Hueber, RD, LDN is an Integrative Functional Dietitian and owner of the private practice Above Health Nutrition. Abigail is an expert in digestive health working with clients through one-on-one programs as well as creator of the No Drama Digestion Program (NDD). An online program that guides clients to heal their gut and finally eliminate frustrating digestive symptoms, IBS, fatigue, brain fog and skin conditions once and for all. Through the tools of functional medicine, Abby works to identify and eliminate the root cause of gut symptoms in the body through nutrition, lifestyle and personalized supplementation to provide long term digestive healing and optimize overall health in both her one-on-one programs and online program.