A recent study shows that there might be a direct link between a healthy life and fiber

February 25, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Eating more fiber might not only make you feel more healthy. A new study suggests that it might help to extend your lifespan.
Photo illustration by Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Grandma called it roughage.

Some nutritionists call it bulk.

Whatever name is used, everyone agrees that fiber is a key ingredient to good health.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fiber intake can play a role in preventing diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and digestive problems.

It also can help you control your weight by curbing your appetite.

Now, according to one of the largest studies of its kind, eating more fiber could mean a longer life.

The nine-year study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and AARP, included almost 400,000 adults, ages 50 to 71.

Each participant filled out a questionnaire in 1995 or 1996 about their eating habits, which also asked them to estimate how often they ate 124 different food items.

After nine years, more than 31,000 of the participants had died. National records were used to find out who died and the cause of death.

Researchers took into account other risk factors, including weight, smoking and health status and still saw lower risks of death in people who ate more fiber.

Comparing people in the lowest quartile — men who ate 13 grams and women who ate 11 grams a day — with those in the highest, where men consumed an average of 29 grams and women 26 grams, the researchers found that people who ate the most fiber were 22 percent less likely to have died of any cause during the study than people who ate the least.

Fiber intake also lowered the risk of death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases by 24 to 56 percent in men and by 34 to 59 percent in women, the researchers said.

One of the study's findings was that fiber has anti-inflammatory properties, said Dr. Yikyung Park, a staff scientist at the National Cancer Institute, adding that grains also are rich in beneficial vitamins, minerals and chemicals.

The results of the study, published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine, don't surprise Lisa McCoy.

"We know that fiber helps lower cholesterol, helps lower your risk of heart disease and certain cancers, so it makes sense that fiber can help you live longer," she said.

McCoy, a registered dietitian with the Washington County Health Department, said foods rich in fiber can play a role in how well your body functions.

And it's even more important for older adults, she said.

One of the side effects of aging is the gradual decline in intestinal tract motility, which causes food to move through the body more slowly, McCoy said.

Add to that the fact that as people get older they often aren't as physically active as they once were, and you begin to see constipation and digestive problems.

McCoy said the American Dietetic Association recommends that people should be eating between 20 and 35 grams of fiber each day.

"That amount doesn't vary for age or gender," she said.

But most people are only consuming 12 grams of fiber or less on a daily basis — half of the recommendation."

"The bottom line is that fiber should be a staple in our diet," she said. "And it's easy to do."

McCoy said when many people think fiber they think grains. But fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fiber, as well as nuts and seeds, the skin of potatoes and apple peels.

Beans, McCoy said, are one of the best sources of fiber "but our society doesn't eat beans as a mainstay, like other cultures."

"We tend to process everything, which takes out the fiber," she said. Foods made from white flour (bleached or unbleached) are poor sources of fiber, including white breads, regular pasta and pizza crusts.

McCoy said it's easy to keep track of your fiber intake. Just look at the nutritional label on the sides of cereal boxes or cans of vegetables.

"If you're eating the recommended three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit, plus using whole grains, you can achieve the recommended daily grams of fiber," she said.

But McCoy has one suggestion.

"I always caution people — regardless of age — that when they increase their fiber, do it gradually," she said.  "Don't start a high-fiber diet overnight. And always increase your fluids. Otherwise, you can create a blockage, resulting in cramping and bloating, that can be very uncomfortable."

And also be active, she said.

The importance of fiber always is stressed in nutrition programs, particularly to senior citizens, McCoy said.

As part of the Washington County Health Department's efforts to education seniors, programs on fiber were presented throughout February at various senior sites.

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