Eat More of This for a Healthy Aging Boost

Women eating a bowl of cereal

Most of us know that there's a connection between good nutrition and healthy aging. We might fill our shopping carts with "superfoods" that are loaded with vitamins and minerals.

But there's one dietary substance that we might overlook when we’re making our eating plan. The body can't digest it, and it contains no vitamins or minerals—yet a recent study showed that it is one of the most important substances we should consume for healthy aging!

What is this important ingredient of a good diet? Dietary fiber. Dietary fiber, a substance found only in plant foods, offers many health benefits. Many people only think about fiber when they want to benefit their digestion—and it certainly does, not only relieving constipation, but also diarrhea. Fiber often is recommended for people with digestive disorders, including diverticulosis and ulcerative colitis.

Yet digestive health is only the beginning. A new study published by the Gerontological Society of America found a strong link between fiber consumption and senior health. The research team, from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Australia, defined successful aging as "an absence of disability, depressive symptoms, cognitive impairment, respiratory symptoms, and chronic diseases including cancer, coronary artery disease and stroke."

Said study author Bamini Gopinath, Ph.D., "Essentially, we found that those who had the highest intake of fiber or total fiber actually had an almost 80 percent greater likelihood of living a long and healthy life over a 10-year follow-up. That is, they were less likely to suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dementia, depression and functional disability."

Dietary fiber lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and is of benefit for people with diabetes. It helps us maintain a healthy weight. And experts at the National Fiber Council say that fiber "promotes growth of healthy bacteria, enhancing the immune system to fight infection and chronic disease."

How does fiber work?

There are two kinds of fiber, and each serves an important function. Insoluble fiber passes through our digestive tract intact and promotes regularity, in short, by "moving things along." Soluble fiber dissolves in water, creating a gel that slows the absorption of sugars and helps lower cholesterol.

What foods contain fiber?

Grains with the word fiber spelled out in Scrabble tiles

Fiber is found only in vegetable foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, beans and nuts. If we eat enough of those foods, we can get enough of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Dietary experts recommended that adults consume around 35 grams of dietary fiber per day (a bit more for men, and a bit less for people older than 50). But, they report, the average American only consumes about 15 grams per day. Most of us can do a lot better!

The best way to increase our fiber intake is to make simple substitutions throughout the day. For example:

  • For breakfast, have a bowl of whole-grain cereal or oatmeal with strawberries instead of a cheese danish.
  • For lunch, order your sandwich on whole-grain bread, with plenty of veggies; order the lentil soup rather than French fries.
  • For a mid-afternoon snack, munch on a handful of nuts and raisins or a cup of popcorn rather than potato chips.
  • At your favorite Mexican restaurant, select a bean burrito instead of cheese (and a whole-wheat tortilla).
  • Substitute an apple, pear or other piece of fruit for candy bars and other snacks.

Processing removes much of the fiber from grains, and sometimes fruits and vegetables as well. (Fresh is best, but if you can't get fresh veggies, canned or frozen varieties retain much of their fiber, say experts.) Choose a whole apple rather than a cup of applesauce. Instead of mashed potatoes, eat a baked potato—including the skin. At the juice bar, skip the fruit juice, which doesn't provide much, if any, fiber—select a whole-fruit smoothie instead. And check the labels on foods such as breakfast cereals and snack crackers to find those that are made with whole grains and are higher in fiber.

What about fiber supplements?

Although it's best to get the fiber we need from foods, many people opt to take commercial fiber supplements. These often contain psyllium husk, which contains both soluble and insoluble fiber. The supplements are available in tablets, capsules or powder form. It's important to ask your doctor whether these supplements are right for you. They may be dangerous for people with swallowing disorders or certain digestive conditions. Fiber supplements also can reduce the effectiveness of certain medications (including insulin) by lowering the amount that is absorbed. And it's important to take these products correctly. The University of Maryland Medical Center says to take fiber supplements with an 8-oz. glass of water, and to drink six to eight glasses of water during the day. Taking a supplement without enough water could cause choking.

Before you start a high-fiber diet…

Be sure to talk to your doctor before making a big change in the amount of fiber you consume. While a high-fiber diet is safe for most people, even without supplements, it's not recommended for every patient. And take it slowly—to avoid nausea, cramping and bloating, it's best to ease your way into a higher-fiber diet. Experts say it can take several weeks for your body to adjust. And according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "Fiber in your diet is similar to a new sponge; it needs water to plump up." So be sure to increase the amount of fluid you drink during this time period.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Ask your doctor if a high-fiber diet is safe for you, and how many grams of fiber per day you should consume.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.