When choosing what you are going to eat every day, and how and when you are going to eat it, think of your digestive system as a sort of assembly line. You want to be sure that your eating choices and habits will keep that assembly line humming right along, and that what comes out the other end—yes, we are talking about bowel movements—is what you want to have coming out. If there are any glitches or hang-ups along the way, that's when things can get dicey for you, and uncomfortable.
A good, safe starting point to any meal plan you are in the process of putting together is always fruits and vegetables; hard to go wrong there. Another word to keep in mind, and in your diet, is "fiber." Lots of fiber, that is, although let's not make it excessive.
Fiber is a carbohydrate most commonly found in plant foods, such as the aforementioned fruits and vegetables, per webmd.com, as well as whole grains. Fiber, unlike other carbs, isn’t easily digested, so it moves quickly through the digestive system without producing any sort of spike in blood sugar. And all that is a good thing.
Provided we drink plenty of water to go with whatever fiber we purposely add to our diet, it can play a vital role in regulating our bowel movements, helping us to avoid both constipation and diarrhea. That's what is known in everyday parlance as a win-win.
There are two kinds of fiber. As described by clevelandclinic.org, one is soluble fiber—found in foods such as oats, peas, beans, apples, carrots and barley—which dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance that is helpful in lowering blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Then there's insoluble fiber, like what is found in whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans and veggies such as cauliflower, green beans and potatoes (per mayoclinic.org). Different fiber-laden foods have different amounts and ratios of the two types of fiber, so the first tip of the day is to eat a wide variety of high-fiber foods just to be on the safe side.
Perhaps you have a friend knowledgeable in healthy eating or you know a nutritionist or dietician who has used another word to say the same thing as fiber, and it's admittedly more descriptive—"roughage." Eat plenty of roughage, they say (the word "bulk" is also used), and you will produce healthy bowel movements two or three times a day. Healthy in this case refers to softer, bulkier stools, which is what we are looking for. Be careful, though, too much fiber in the diet can lead to uncomfortable bloating and gas.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day. As we age, our need for fiber decreases. For women 70 and older, the recommended number is 21 grams a day; for men in the same age group it is 30 grams a day. If you are taking prescription medication(s), check with your physician before purposely increasing the fiber in your diet as it can obstruct the absorption and effectiveness of some medications, Cleveland Clinic advises.
A high-fiber diet has potential health benefits other than just enhancing the pleasure factor of the rest room experience:
- Helps in weight control. It helps us feel full without adding a lot of calories. You're less likely to feel hungry again an hour or two later; therefore, you'll eat fewer calories.
- Helps maintain bowel health. Reportedly lowers the risk of hemorrhoids and diverticular disease.
- Aids the gastrointestinal tract. By providing bulk to the stool, colon lubrication and transit is enhanced.
- May help prevent colon cancer.
Here are 10 tips to consider when upping your fiber intake, although, as always, a consultation with your physician is recommended as well:
- Make it a gradual increase of fiber. Too much too quickly can lead to constipation and bloating.
- As you up the fiber intake, increase your drinking-water intake as well.
- Try brown rice and whole-grain pastas.
- Eat the skins of raw fruits and vegetables. Much of the fiber is found in the skins.
- Consider fiber supplements, especially if you are frequently constipated.
- Eat high-fiber breakfast cereals—look for one with five or more grams of fiber per serving.
- Eat more fruits and veggies, period; not just the skins.
- Legumes such as beans, peas and lentils are loaded with fiber.
- Look for food products that list whole grain in place of enriched flour as the first ingredient.
- A handful-sized snack of nuts and dried fruits fits this bill.
Follow these tips, and keep that motor running—smoothly.