Nutritional Health For All

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Dietary Advice for a Healthy Bowel

Having a healthy bowel habit is an important part of feeling well. Experts believe that a healthy bowel habit means having anything from 3 bowel motions a day to 3 bowel motions a week. Everyone has a different bowel habit. What seems ‘normal’ for you may seem completely abnormal to someone else!

Your bowel health can be affected by many lifestyle factors: diet, stress, alcohol, smoking, antibiotics and travel. Simple changes to your lifestyle can make a big difference to your digestive health, helping you to feel good from the inside out. Follow these simple tips to keep your bowel healthy:

Eat lots of high fibre foods

Fibre or 'roughage' is an important part of any healthy diet. It plays a crucial role in maintaing a healthy bowel since it keeps material moving through the digestive system, preventing constipation and ensuring stools are bulky and easy to pass. Diets high in fibre can also help maintain a healthy weight, lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Adults need 25g of fibre every day. However only 1 in 5 Irish adults meet this target.

There are two types of fibre; soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre keeps you feel fuller for longer and adds form to your stool. This type of fibre is found mainly in oats, barley, fruit and pulses (beans, peas and lentils). Insoluble fibre speeds up digestion and helps ‘keep you regular’. Insoluble fibre is found in wholegrain bread, cereals and pasta, brown rice and the skins of fruit and vegetables. We need to eat plenty of each type of fibre to keep our digestive system healthy.

How can I increase my fibre intake?

  • Choose porridge or a wholegrain breakfast cereal in the morning

  • Add fruit to low-fat yogurt as a mid-morning snack

  • Order a green salad or vegetable soup at lunchtime

  • Select a low-fat smoothie or fruit salad as a mid-afternoon snack

  • Choose wholemeal bread, rice and pasta instead of white

  • Include vegetables or pulses (peas, beans, lentils) with your main meal

  • Read food labels: High fibre foods contain more than 6g of fibre per 100g while lower fibre foods contain less than 3g of fibre per 100g.

TOP TIP! Gradually increase your fibre intake to avoid stomach upset. Do this by making one new change to your diet every week.

Keep your body hydrated

When you eat more fibre it is important to drink more fluids to avoid discomfort and bloating. Drinking enough fluid is important as it adds weight to the stool, making bowel movements softer and easier to pass. Aim to drink 8 to 10 cups (1.5 to 2 litres) of fluids every day. You will need to drink more while exercising or in hot weather. A simple way of knowing if you are drinking enough is to check the colour of your urine: it should be pale yellow in colour. If it is darker, this is a sign that you need to drink more. Water is the best option; to give it flavour add a slice of lemon or lime or sugar-free squash. Other options are low-fat milk and diluted fruit juice. Tea, coffee and many fizzy drinks contain caffeine which makes your body lose fluid. Limit your intake of these drinks.

Know your body

Avoid food and drinks that upset your digestion. Everyone is different: foods that affect some may not affect others. Caffeine, spicy foods and alcohol are known stimulants of the bowel. Reduce your intake of these if you find you bowel motions are too frequent or loose. Smoking may also affect your bowel so it is important to stop smoking to improve your digestive health.

Have a regular meal pattern

The more regular our eating pattern, the more predictable our bowel habit will be. Shift work and travel can interrupt your bowel habit. Aim to establish a regular meal pattern including lots of high fibre options to keep food moving through your digestive system and to keep you feeling well.

Include breakfast every day

Having breakfast gives you a fantastic start to the day and is a wonderful opportunity to include lots fibre in your diet. Take a look at 'Breakfast - A Great Start to Your Day' for lots of ideas for healthy breakfast options.

It’s not a race!

Relax when eating. Take time to sit and enjoy your meals. Rushing your meals can cause you to gulp lots of extra air, leaving you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. Chew food well to kick-start the digestive process. Take time to relax every day as stress can negatively affect your digestive health.

Be active every day!

Physical activity stimulates the muscles in the bowel to contract, helping to promote a regular bowel habit. Regular activity also promotes mental and physical health by relieving stress and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Everybody over 18 years should take part in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days per week. Moderate activity is where your breathing and heart rate are raised but you are still able to hold a conversation. Examples include brisk walking, jogging, running, dancing, swimming and playing tennis, golf or football. Choose activities you enjoy and make a plan to include them inyour weekly routine. Any amount of exercise is better for your health than none at all. Always consult your doctor before starting to exercise if you have been inactive for a long time.

For more information on any topics raised here, speak to your GP or seek a referral to a dietitian to receive indidualised nutritional advice.


Created by Niamh Flanagan, MINDI, October 2013
Review date: October 2015
© 2013 Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, INDI. All rights reserved. May be reproduced in its entirety provided source is acknowledged. This information is not meant to replace advice from your medical doctor or individual counselling with a dietitian. It is intended for educational and informational purposes only.


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