While dietary fiber is an important part of a healthy diet for people of all ages, it can greatly help older adults who have challenges with constipation, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, and their weight. However, a whopping 97 percent of Americans are not getting enough of this plant-based carbohydrate in their diet, according to a study published in Nutrients.
An obstacle that may prevent seniors from eating enough fiber is a smaller appetite. This is common later in life due to a slower metabolism, less physical activity, and decreased muscle mass. Therefore, seniors need to ensure that they consume enough dietary fiber to stay healthy. Dietary guidelines for adults 51 years of age and older recommend a daily consumption of 28g of fiber for males and 22.4g for females, but this can vary for individual diets. Follow along to learn why a fiber-rich diet is particularly beneficial for seniors.
What Is Fiber?
Unlike other food components that absorb into your body, including fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, fiber cannot be digested. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are a few good sources of soluble and/or insoluble fiber (most fiber-rich foods have a mixture of both). Other fiber-rich foods include:
- Soluble fiber includes oats and oatmeal, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), barley, fruits (oranges, apples), and vegetables (carrots).
- Insoluble fiber includes whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans, and vegetables (cauliflower, green beans, and potatoes). Both are important for health, digestion, and preventing diseases.
Visit health.gov for a more complete list of food sources ranked by amounts of dietary fiber.
Benefits of Fiber in Older Adults
Constipation is common later in life due to age-related changes in the gastrointestinal tract. Certain prescription drugs, such as opioids, blood pressure medicines, and antidepressants can cause constipation as well. Seniors often turn to laxatives to relieve constipation; however, chronic use of laxatives has been associated with problems that can lead to nutrient deficiencies, metabolic disorders, and potentially severe damage to the gastrointestinal tract.
A better alternative for relieving constipation is through a high-fiber diet combined with physical exercise and plenty of water (at least 8-10 eight-ounce glasses of water daily). A high-fiber diet without enough water can lead to further constipation and compound existing problems with bowel movements. Both types of fiber are essential for keeping your intestinal system running smoothly. Soluble fiber gives stool bulk, while insoluble fiber helps speed up the transit of food in the digestive tract.
Lowers cholesterol levels
Cholesterol, an essential fat, is made up of two parts: LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, and HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol. The mainstream view has been that high levels of cholesterol can cause heart disease; however, contradictory studies have found that higher LDL cholesterol is actually associated with lower death rates. Nevertheless, soluble fiber may help lower total blood cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol and bile acid in the intestine, secreting cholesterol from the body. Because the risk of high cholesterol increases with age, older adults could benefit from including fiber-rich foods as part of a healthy diet.
Regulates blood sugar levels
According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 26 percent of Americans over age 65 have diabetes, and half of this age group have prediabetes and are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Soluble fiber slows down the digestive process making glucose release more slowly into the bloodstream. Therefore, eating fiber as part of a diabetic diet can help control blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Aids with a healthy weight
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than one third of older adults aged 65 and older were obese from 2007-2010. Seniors who need to lose weight can get help by consuming low-calorie, fiber-rich foods that are typically more filling than low-fiber foods. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, eating 30 grams of fiber each day can help with weight loss.
Getting Help From Medicare
When fiber is not enough, in many cases, your doctor – and Medicare – may be able to help. For example, if you are unable to relieve symptoms of constipation naturally, a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D) may cover laxatives prescribed by an authorized health professional. To help diagnose your risk for heart disease, Medicare may pay for cholesterol, lipid, and triglyceride level tests ordered by your doctor. Medicare also covers some diabetes supplies, including blood sugar (glucose) testing monitors, blood sugar test strips, and insulin. Medicare can also help with weight loss through weight loss counseling and even weight loss surgery, if you meet certain coverage requirements. A Medicare Advantage Plan (Part C) may include a free fitness program called SilverSneakers.
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