What to Do about Constipation on a Keto Diet?

constipation on a keto diet

Have you become more constipated since starting a low-carb or keto diet? Or are you hesitant to try a low-carb diet after learning constipation may be a side effect?

If so, this guide will help explain all things related to low carb and constipation.

What is constipation?

Before exploring how low-carb eating and constipation are related, we first need to define what constipation is.

Constipation is an uncomfortable decrease in bowel movements that interferes with daily life. The medical literature defines constipation as three or fewer bowel movements per week. However, more important than the numerical definition is determining if going to the bathroom less often is a problem or not.

Therefore, we need to differentiate a normal decrease in stool frequency from pathological constipation.

Signs of pathological constipation include bloating, abdominal pain, excessive gas, bloody stools, and straining or discomfort with bowel movements. The complete absence of these symptoms likely signifies a natural reduction in stool frequency, not constipation.

Here is possibly the most important take-home point of this entire guide: If your bowel movements decrease, but you have no other symptoms or changes, you are not suffering from constipation.

How prevalent is constipation on a keto diet?

The prevalence of constipation on a low-carb or keto diet can be as high as 50% according to some studies. Clinicians familiar with low-carb diets, however, feel it is closer to 25%. The good news is that clinicians also agree that constipation is usually mild and self-resolves over time, or cure it easily with home and over-the-counter remedies.

Why does constipation happen on a keto diet?

While there is no one science-backed reason, there are several theories as to why someone on a keto diet may suffer from constipation.

The first is an acute decrease in fiber. While it is debatable if you need fiber for healthy bowel movements, many believe that your body needs time to adjust to a sudden decrease in fiber content. Therefore, if someone was getting a lot of fiber from whole grains, fruit, and beans — and suddenly stopped eating those foods — that may temporarily result in constipation. Of course, some people may actually increase their fiber intake on a low-carb diet if they replace processed sugars and starches with vegetables.

Keep in mind that low-carb diets don’t have to be low in fiber. Above-ground veggies and seeds can still provide plenty of fiber for most people.

Another potential cause for constipation is dehydration. As known to all, the transition to a very low-carb diet can cause an increase in urination with fluid and sodium loss. This can result in mild dehydration, which is potentially associated with constipation.

Along these same lines, some believe a change in body electrolytes can alter stool frequency.

Last, low-carb diets often result in a natural caloric decrease.

This reduction in calories is especially common if low carb is combined with intermittent fasting. Eating less can mean eliminating less. This alone should not cause constipation, but could decrease stool volume or frequency.

How to prevent or treat constipation on a keto diet

Here are our top six tips for how to manage constipation on a low-carb or keto diet:

Keep hydrated

Since dehydration is a potential reason for constipation, it makes sense that adequate hydration can help prevent or treat constipation. This has not been tested in a well-controlled clinical trials, and certainly not with a low-carb diet.

Get adequate salt: 

Just like with hydration, this hasn’t been studied in clinical trials, but the idea is that increasing salt intake can help with fluid retention and preventing dehydration. What is “adequate salt?” This may vary for each individual, but a good starting point is between four and six grams of sodium per day (that’s about 2.5 teaspoons per day). 

Eat more fiber

Maintaining adequate fiber intake may be the most effective approach for preventing low-carb induced constipation. We recommend getting fiber from whole foods whenever possible. Above-ground veggies, nuts, and seeds all are good sources of low-carb fiber. 

Take magnesium supplements

Magnesium is a well-known laxative, and is also a frequently recommended supplement. At doses of around 200 to 400 mg, magnesium is usually well tolerated. However, higher doses may lead to loose stools or overt diarrhea. For someone suffering from constipation, this may be a welcomed effect. Consider starting with 600mg and increasing to 1,000 mg daily if needed (do not exceed 2,000 mg).

Add MCT oil

Another solution is adding medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. MCT oil can help promote ketosis and can also stimulate gut motility and bowel movements. Consider starting with one to two tablespoons (0.5 to 1 ounce) and slowly increase if needed. Just be aware that one tablespoon has 115 calories. These calories can add up quickly if you take multiple tablespoons per day.

Be physically active

Some research suggests that regular physical activity may improve constipation. Given the many other benefits of physical activity, it is an easy one to recommend!

The Takeaway

If constipation does not improve with any of the interventions mentioned above, over-the-counter stool softeners such as Colace, or laxatives, such as Dulcolax, could be an option. Make sure to follow package directions and warnings.

Someone experiencing constipation would rarely need medical evaluation, but that is an important option if the other interventions don’t succeed.

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