Eating for Life

Focus on getting enough fiber

When Tufts University introduced the 70+ Food Pyramid for Older Adults in 1999, it added a fiber icon to nearly every food group depicted on the graphic.

So just what's all the fuss about fiber?

It doesn't supply vitamins, minerals or calories. Still, it's essential to the body and helps prevent disease.

Americans “don't eat enough, and it's an important nutrient,” says Debra Sullivan, an associate professor of human nutrition at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Fiber acts like a broom, sweeping out the intestines. Eating fiber is associated with lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Seniors tend to avoid fiber for a variety of reasons:

 They grew up in a time when enriched white bread and refined starches were the norm, says Linda Netterville, project director of the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

 Poor dental health and dentures can lead to a lack of fiber. “Foods that have a lot of fiber are hard things to chew if you've got dental problems,” Sullivan says.

 Limited budgets and a lack of interest in cooking can also lead older adults to choose inexpensive, easy-to-prepare foods, like soup and crackers.

To increase fiber intake, simply eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, although be sure to increase the amount gradually to avoid the possibility of painful bloating.

How do you know if you're getting enough fiber?

Although fiber recommendations vary between 20 to 35 grams per day among various health organizations, Sullivan points to the 2002 Dietary Reference Intake guidelines: Adult males 50-plus should get 30 grams a day while adult females in the 50-plus age range should get 21 grams a day.

“Breakfast is probably the best place to put some fiber in your diet,” Netterville says.

Be sure to check nutrition labels: for a food to be considered a “good” source of dietary fiber, look for at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.

 Look for whole-grain breads rather than breads made with refined flours.

 Substitute brown rice for white rice.

 Choose whole fruits rather than juice. (Berries are particularly high in fiber.)

 Eat legumes instead of meat at least twice a week.

And to wash all that fiber through the body, it's important to drink plenty of water.