By Richard Wetaya
At some point in life, most people have experienced problems with their digestive systems. Common among the problems is hard bowel movement or constipation.
Thirty-eight-year-old businessman Ben Khaukha vividly recalls his experience: “I would strain so much during defecation that I even developed haemorrhoids (swellings in the anus). I was advised to drink a lot of water and eat plenty of fruits to ease digestion.”
Constipation is a condition, where someone does not pass stool regularly and when one does so, it is hard and dry.
According to Sam Wamimbi, a nutritionist at Mukhuwa Health Centre in Mbale, “If one consumes a lot of foods made with white flour, hard boiled eggs, meat, biscuits, rice, bread and cheese, chances are high that one may present with constipation.”
Eating hard foods that are deficient in dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, or roughage may cause or exacerbate constipation, Wamimbi says. The condition can also result from inadequate intake of fluids, especially water.
“Water is the most essential ingredient in anybody’s diet. It is the medium through which foods are transported in the blood for use throughout the body,” Wamimbi says.
Consumption of meat in large quantities can also spark off constipation.
“Meat inhibits bowel movements because it does not have dietary fibre. In addition, mixing animal protein, for example meat, with foods such as bread, beans, peas and cereals is wrong. Proteins are best digested when eaten with fresh vegetables and fruits,” Sam Omoding, a nutritionist at the Mbale School of Hygiene adds.
Constipation can also be attributed to a weakness in the abdominal muscles due to a sedentary lifestyle. Stress too can cause or make constipation worse.
Someone who is constipated may complain of bloating, less frequent defecation and lumpy or hard stool.
“Subsidiary signs may include dark circles under the eyes, nausea, constant fullness in the stomach, loss of appetite, dizziness and varicose veins,” Omoding adds.
Wamimbi says when constipation occurs frequently; it may require one to change one’s eating habits and lifestyle.
“Choose foods high in roughage and fibre, such as whole grain cereals, water melon, pawpaws as well as other fruits and vegetables. Dietary fibre aids normal functioning of the digestive tract, he adds.
When these foods rich in fibre are incorporated in one’s diet, they improve stool frequency, thereby preventing constipation,” Wamimbi says.
Increasing dietary fibre can help to avert constipation. Sufficient fibre promotes more frequent bowel movements and softer stool. Fibre provides roughage, which aids normal functioning of the digestive tract.
Dietary fibre, Omoding says, can be found in unrefined foods such as whole grain cereals, legumes, pawpaw, brown rice, fruits and vegetables.
Fresh fruits, especially grapes, mangoes, grapefruit, guava and oranges may also come in handy. However, dietary fibre alone may not ward off constipation. One can add fruit and vegetable salad to a low fibre meal to soften the stool, Wamimbi says, adding that sufficient intake of water can avert constipation.
“Five to eight glasses of water every day can help ease digestion and dissolving of food nutrients,” Omoding says. It is important to chew food slowly and properly for at least 15 times, Omoding notes.
“One should avoid eating hurriedly and eating at odd times such as late at night, especially foods such as white flour, rice, bread, cakes, biscuits, cheese, white sugar and hard-boiled eggs,” Omoding says.
All fruits, except bananas and jackfruit are rich in fibre, which softens stool.
Adults suffering from constipation should consume plenty of fruits. In addition, drinking lukewarm water with half a teaspoon of salt can also help to alleviate constipation. The old adage about an apple a day keeping the doctor away is no cliché.
Wamimbi says apples are high in fibre, which stimulates the digestive system, thus warding off constipation.