The effects that oatmeal has on your digestive system are somewhat confusing, and you may have heard conflicting stories.
Is oatmeal a laxative that will make you poop? Or does it work in the opposite direction and can it help harden loose stool and take care of diarrhea?
The quick answer is that it oatmeal is a good choice if you are looking to stimulate bowel movements... because it has laxative effects.
The Reason for Oatmeal's Laxative Effect
A laxative is anything that can help stimulate or facilitate the evacuation of the bowels... anything that can help you poop.
When it comes to natural laxatives you want foods that are high in fiber--and you want the opposite if you have diarrhea and are trying to get rid of it, which is why the low-fiber BRAT diet is often recommended for diarrhea sufferers.
Fiber In Oatmeal
According to the USDA, one cup of cooked oatmeal will provide you with about 4 grams of fiber, which is about 15-20% of what is recommended daily.
Most Americans only get about 15 grams of fiber per day due to eating too many processed foods. Throwing vegetables, fruit, and whole grains like oatmeal are good choices to boost fiber intake and help stimulate BM's.
There are 2 types of fiber and both can actually have somewhat of a laxative effect--and oatmeal contains both.
Insoluble fiber is fiber that is not broken down in the digestive system and remains intact. It helps stimulate bowel movements by adding bulk to stool and helping speed up passage.
Soluble fiber, on the other hand, absorbs water and turns into a gel-like substance. It can help stimulate BM's by bringing water into hardened stool and softening it.
Both forms of fiber work hand-in-hand. The extra bulk from insoluble fiber and the softening effect of soluble fiber make for a great natural laxative.
Are Natural Laxatives a Better Choice?
Taking laxatives every once in a while isn't a problem. The problem comes from overuse... and of course how strong the laxatives are.
Laxatives help stimulate BM's, which is good. The bad thing is that if they increase BM frequency too much then you are basically flushing out your system without allowing your body to absorb the important nutrients you are eating--and this is why people who overuse laxatives are often frail and malnourished.
Over-the-counter laxatives can be more potent but can also have more negative side effects, such as dependency, decreased bowel function, and can lead to less nutrient absorptio.
Natural laxatives, like oatmeal and other foods high in fiber, aren't going to have such noticeable effects but can be eaten consistently without any negative effects.
So while an over-the-counter laxative may be a better choice for a serious case of constipation that you need relief from instantly, oatmeal and other foods that have a natural laxative effect may be a better choice for long-term use to keep BM's normal.
Additionally there are many other benefits from eating a healthy natural food like oatmeal, some of which include:
- Oatmeal can lower cholesterol and reduce risk of diabetes
- Oats are rich in antioxidants that help fight off cell-damaging free-radicals
- They have been shown to improve blood sugar levels
- Oatmeal is very filling, which is good if you are trying to lose weight
... and more.
Oatmeal is also a great source of slow digesting carbs, which provide a slow source of energy--and this is the reason oatmeal is often the pre-workout meal of choice among many athletes.
Oatmeal As a 'Binding Food'
If you have diarrhea you are likely to be recommended binding foods.
What the heck is a binding food?
A binding food is a food that helps bind your stool, or hold it together which can help eliminate diarrhea.
Oatmeal, although it can definitely help loosen up stool and help one poop, also has some binding qualities to it.
The soluble fiber in particular is what can help bind lose stool--which Today's Dietitian claims oatmeal provides as much as 3g of in 3/4 cup dry oats.
As mentioned, soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel-like substance. This can help harden overly-loose stool and hold it together.
Will It Give You Diarrhea or Constipation?
The good news is that oatmeal isn't likely to give most people either problem. It is much more likely to help normalize bowel movements, which means if you are constipated it can help loosen stool and if you have diarrhea it can help harden it.
That said, there is no doubt that oatmeal leans more heavily to the side of being a laxative... so although there are some qualities that it has which could be beneficial for helping harden the stool, there are much better alternatives out there and if you do have diarrhea oatmeal is something we'd recommend that you stop eating for a bit.
Generally speaking, foods that you want to eat if you have diarrhea are those low in fiber. Foods that you want to eat if you are constipated are high in fiber.
Oatmeal is considered a high fiber food, which means it's a better choice for it's laxative effect--to help fight off constipation.
Why It Won't Always Help
As we know, the big reason oatmeal has laxative-type effects is because of its fiber content, which it is high in.
However, there are many causes of constipation.
Lack of fiber is a very common cause and if this is one's problem then oatmeal could very well help out... but if constipation is caused by some other reason it may not be beneficial in this area.
A Better Natural Laxative Alternative
If you are a fan of oatmeal and looking to stimulate a BM, you might also be a fan of oat bran, which is even better for stimulating BMs.
Oat bran is made from the same oats as oatmeal, but only consists of the bran of the oats whereas oatmeal is the whole grain. It has a creamier texture that some people prefer and is often eaten as a porridge.
*The bran is the hard outer layer of the oat
Oat bran has about 50% more fiber than oatmeal. That's a big difference and the reason oat bran is pretty much the undisputed better choice when it comes to the question of which is the better natural laxative.
In fact, it's such a good natural laxative that in a 2009 study in The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging it was able to be used as a substitute to over-the-counter laxatives. In this study frail elderly patients who were on heavy amounts of laxatives were given 7-8g of oat bran per day for 12 weeks. The results were that 59% were able to discontinue using laxatives.
Oatmeal, oat bran... both are good choices. Both are high in fiber and have laxative effects.
So next time you are a bit constipated and are looking for a healthy way to stimulate a BM, whip up a bowl of oatmeal and give that try.
PS: If you think something that you may be eating is causing irregular BM's, you may want to try an elimination diet!