You’ve probably heard it many times throughout life: Eat more fiber! And while this is good advice at any age, it’s especially important for seniors.
Why do I need more fiber?
The typical American diet has changed dramatically over the last century. Advances in food production and processing have created an entirely new category: processed foods. These foods are now ubiquitous in grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. Processed foods constitute a majority of the calories consumed in the Western diet. There are many advantages to this new category of food, such as convenience, taste and cost, but there are also unintended consequences. Perhaps the biggest detriment is the near complete removal of fiber from processed foods. This has resulted in dramatic changes in our metabolism.
People over age 70 are more at risk for high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity. Removing fiber from our diets is a big part of this elevated risk. Fiber improves the body’s metabolism and allows for a more proper balance of cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Because of this, one’s risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke are all reduced with increased dietary fiber content.
Another major benefit is that fiber can help make your bowel movements softer and more regular. Adding fiber to your diet can improve related issues including constipation, hemorrhoids, and diarrhea. Plus, it can help prevent “accidents” if you have trouble controlling your bowel movements.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber slows down the digestion process by attracting water and turning it into gel. Soluble fiber can be found in fruits, oats, barley, beans, and peas. Insoluble fiber helps food pass more quickly through the stomach and intestines by adding “bulk” to stool. Insoluble fiber can be found in wheat, rye, and other grains.
A healthy intake of both soluble and insoluble fiber is important for not only decreasing your risk of medical problems, but also common digestive issues like constipation and diverticulosis (bulging pouches on the wall of the colon).
How can I increase my intake?
Fiber is derived from plants and can be found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, oat bran, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and whole grains.
Fiber supplements — such as psyllium and methyl cellulose — are another option in addition to getting fiber from food. However, we strongly recommend talking to a doctor before taking supplements.
How much should I be getting?
Most men age 70 or older should have 30g of dietary fiber per day and women age 70 or older should have 21g per day. A person’s level of activity and daily calorie intake should be taken into account, which is why it’s best to ask your doctor for your recommended daily fiber intake.
What are the side effects of fiber?
When you start eating more fiber, your belly might feel bloated, or you might have gas or cramps. You can avoid these side effects by adding fiber to your diet slowly. Some people feel worse when they eat more fiber or take fiber supplements. If you feel worse after adding more fiber to your diet, try adjusting the type and amount of fiber you’re consuming, to see if that helps.
Not sure if you’re on the right track with fiber? You can contact one of our Be Well MD senior-specialized clinicians for help. Call us at 512-553-1921.