You’ve heard it before. Eat more fiber. Do you know why? Do you know what it is? Do you think you need more fiber as you get older? Are you aware of the health benefits of fiber, the types of fiber and how much you need each day? I’m going to answer these questions for you and also give you some specific “fiber options” that you can make a part of your day because fiber is an essential ingredient of a healthy diet.
Dietary fiber has been called bulk or roughage. It comes from the components of food that cannot be digested by your body. One of its missions is to help propel food through your intestines and colon. There are two types of fiber, insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber is the type that I just mentioned. It does not dissolve in water and its main function is to add bulk to food in your digestive tract. Whole-wheat flour, nuts, bran and vegetables such as celery are examples of insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water. Sources are found in beans, peas, citrus fruits, apples, oats, oat bran, flaxseed and psyllium, a seed with husks that are rich in soluble fiber and found in some cereals as well as bulk laxatives. A balanced diet contains a variety of both types of fiber.
Benefits of a high-fiber diet include the following:
• Helps prevent constipation.
• Helps lower total blood cholesterol by lowering the levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein), the “bad” cholesterol.
• Helps control blood sugar levels and may also help to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
• Helps you to chew longer and makes you feel fuller longer, helping you lose weight.
The amount of fiber recommended for adults by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine is:
• Men, age 50 and younger, 38 grams . . . age 51 and older, 30 grams
• Women, age 50 and younger, 25 grams . . . age 51 and older, 21 grams
Why are fewer grams of fiber recommended as we get older? What about all the prune juice and All-Bran jokes? “It’s not that people need fiber less as they get older. The advice is to get 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories, and older people need fewer calories.” 1
Perhaps that also explains senior portions on menus.
How can you get your recommended daily intake of fiber? Begin your day with a high-fiber breakfast. Here’s an example: 1 cup of Shredded Wheat (5 grams) and a medium banana (about 5 grams) or ½ grapefruit (5 grams). That gives you 10 grams and you’re only on breakfast! If you don’t have a banana for breakfast, take one with you for a snack. Bananas are already conveniently and attractively packaged. Apples are, too. For lunch, a salad that includes ½ cup of kidney or black beans will give you about 6 grams of fiber. (All beans are high in fiber except jelly beans). A whole wheat tortilla has about 3 grams of fiber and if you add beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, some low, or non-fat sour cream and salsa, you have a delicious, high-fiber dinner entrée.
Get a book of food counts. I recommend The Complete Book of Food Counts by Corinne T. Netzer. In it, you can find listings of calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium and fiber for a wide variety of foods. I have made cards with fiber amounts and recommend that people pick a card out of the “deck” and have that item for a snack or at a meal, for instance, an apple with 5 grams, an orange with about 4 grams, or ½ a whole-wheat bagel with about 3.5 grams. Put all your cards together and at the end of the day add up how many grams of fiber you have eaten. You may surprise yourself and have more than you expected. It’s a fun way to learn about food and label reading, not only for you but also for your family.
A word of warning: too much fiber too fast can cause abdominal bloating or gas, so go easy on changes in your diet. Small steps work best. Also, keep well-hydrated. Drink water. It helps fiber function more efficiently and a diet high in fiber will help you function more efficiently as well.
1 Nutrition Action Health Letter. July/August 2008
Yours in fitness,
Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM