Fiber: Most of us know we need it and probably don't get enough of it. But why, exactly, is fiber so important and how do we get more of it in our diets?
Sure, fiber aids digestion, but it also has been linked to lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health problems. Unfortunately, most Americans' diets contain too little fiber to reap its benefits.
"As a dietician, I see that people, as they age, do tend to eat less fiber than they should - by a significant amount," said Karen Massey, who specializes in nutrition and consumer issues at the Routt County Extension office.
Getting into a fiber routine doesn't have to be complicated. A bit of planning and smart nutrition choices are among simple guidelines for a fiber-rich diet and healthier lifestyle.
Fiber is the part of plant foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, that is not digested when eaten.
Fiber is either soluble, if it partially dissolves in water, or insoluble. Most plant foods contain both types.
Various studies and information sources differ on the types of fiber most beneficial in preventing some dangerous conditions. Some sources, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, point out that vitamins and other substances in high-fiber foods also may contribute to links between fiber-rich diets and better health.
Still, results of large-scale and long-term studies give consumers good incentive to increase their fiber intake.
For example, a Harvard University study of more than 40,000 men found that those with a high-fiber diet (more than 35 grams a day), had a 36 percent lower risk of developing heart disease.
Harvard also associates fiber with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. Studies involving men and women found that low fiber diets with excessive amounts of foods that cause spikes in blood sugar - such as white bread, potatoes and refined cereals - more than doubled participants' risk of diabetes.
Sufficient fiber also is recommended to prevent or treat diverticulosis or inflammation of the intestine common among older Americans, and constipation, which is also a problem for older adults because of medications and other issues.
The right choices
Based on average calorie intake, women 51 and older should eat about 21 grams of fiber per day and men 51 and older about 30 grams of fiber daily, according to the Institute of Medicine
The typical American eats only about 11 grams of fiber per day, according to the American Dietetic association.
Factors contributing to low fiber diets among older adults include poor fitting dentures and the extra time it takes to prepare some high fiber foods, Massey said.
A visit with a dentist can help alleviate denture problems that make eating high-fiber or chewy foods painful. The next step is a trip to the grocery store to stock up on fiber-rich foods.
As with any nutrition choices, reading labels is key to finding high fiber foods. Almost all food labels list the grams of fiber per serving and Percent Daily Value based on a 2,000-calorie diet.
A product can claim it is "a good source" of fiber if it contributes 10 percent of the DV or 2.5 grams of fiber per serving. "High in," "rich in," or an "excellent source" of fiber mean a product provides at lease 20 percent of the DV or 5 grams per serving, according to the FDA.
"Frequently, when I have two products, and I don't know which to buy, fiber is the first thing I look at," Massey said.
Whole grain breads are good sources of fiber, but not all breads fit the bill (some white breads are even colored brown so they look healthier, Massey notes).
Always look for the term "whole" on the package indicating the entire grain kernel is still in the product. The whole grain or flour should be among the first ingredients listed, Massey said.
Fiber "habits" can help people incorporate fiber-rich foods into their diets regularly, said Roberta Gill, dietician at the Visiting Nurse Association.
Starting with breakfast, she recommends a high-fiber cereal with at least 4 to 5 grams of fiber per serving and fruit instead of fruit juice.
Other high fiber choices include brown rice and other whole grains such as millet or quinoa instead of white rice, and whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta.
Beans, among the least expensive sources of fiber and available pre-cooked in cans, can be added to soups and salads or substituted for meats in some dishes, Gills said.
For snacks, people should avoid crackers and chips and instead munch on veggies or popcorn, which is high in fiber (though people with diverticulosis should avoid popcorn).
It's best to gradually increase fiber intake just a few grams at a time and to drink plenty of water, at least eight cups per day, to avoid uncomfortable side effects from fiber, according to the FDA.
Enzyme products such as Beano also can help in digesting fiber.
Though products such as Metamucil are available to help people get more fiber, they should try to get as much fiber from food as possible so they also benefit from the vitamins and minerals in those foods, Massey said.
"Food is fun. : If you have the right attitude it can be a really enjoyable experience to figure out how to incorporate more these fiber-rich foods into your diet," she said.
This article includes information from the Harvard School of Public Health (www.hsph.harvard.edu) and "Bulking Up Fiber's Healthful Reputation," an article from the FDA Consumer magazine, July 1997.
Tamera Manzanares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.