by Liz Van Oss Tymchuck, MS, RDN, LD
Senior citizens are faced with changes in their bodies that impact their everyday lives. Their joints and muscles are not what they used to be so they exercise less. Many have problems with incontinence, so they avoid drinking adequate fluid. Other issues include decrease in gut motility, intolerance to food and side effects of medications. The end result of these changes often is chronic constipation. What is an older person to do?
Consuming the Right Type of Fiber
One suggestion often made is to increase fiber in the diet. Fiber is defined as the edible parts of plants that are resistant to digestion and absorption. Not all fiber is the same and is referred to as soluble or insoluble. Put simply, some fiber dissolves in water and some does not. Fiber from the soft parts of fruits or from the sap of plants dissolves in water, while fiber from the stems, leaves, bulbs, roots and tubers does not. It is that latter type, insoluble fiber, that aids in relief of constipation. One exception to this simplified rule is fiber in the form of plant gums such as locus bean gum, guar gum or carageenan (to name a few) which dissolve in water, but pass through the small intestine to the colon where they add bulk to stool, thus aid in the relief of constipation.
The recommendation for fiber intake for people over 50 years is 30 grams per day for men and 21 grams per day for women.1 The best form of fiber is from food sources.
Foods that provide the highest amount of dietary fiber are as follows:
- whole grain cereals at 3 to 8 grams per serving
- fruits at 1 to 3 grams per serving
- vegetable at 1 to 5 grams per serving and
- legumes at 6 to 7 grams per serving.2
Suggestions for increasing fiber in the diet from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are as follows:
Eat 5 to 10 ounces of bread, cereal, rice and pasta daily with at least half of them from whole grains.
- Choose a variety of fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Add bran to muffins, pancake batter, casseroles, breakfast cereals and salads.
- Boost the fiber in cereals with fresh fruit and sprinkle with bran.
- Choose whole grain baked goods with seeds, raisins or other dried fruit3
Increase Fluid Intake
In addition to increasing fiber in the diet, it is important to increase fluid intake. Taking small drinks often during the day will even out the fluid intake and hopefully help with incontinence issues at the same time.
Sometimes it is not possible to take in the quantity of food required to provide the recommended amount of fiber. As suggested above, adding unprocessed bran which provides 7 grams of fiber per ¼ cup is an excellent means to increase the fiber content of a person’s diet. Another method is to consume one of the several fiber enhanced fruit beverages available or to add a powdered gum based product to foods. The advantage of this last suggestion is that these products are usually tasteless, odorless and provide about 3 grams of fiber in just one tablespoon.
It is important to remember that constipation is a symptom of changes in aging bodies, not a disease. Making a few changes in the diet should help bring relief to the situation for senior citizens.
- Coleman, Erin. Federal Guidelines for Fiber for Men & Women. Healthy Eating.
- Lane RH. Dietary Fiber – New Ways to Include in Diet. Gerontological Nutritionists, Summer 2007.
- Grains of truth about FIBER. Gerontological Nutritionists, Summer 2007.