An often-overlooked nutrient for women over 50 is dietary fiber. The benefits of a diet rich in fiber are many: as well as promoting normal bowel health, dietary fiber contributes to feelings of satiety and can lower cholesterol levels (5). Adequate fiber intakes therefore contribute to overall wellness, and may help reduce chronic disease risk.
Constipation (6) is a common yet uncomfortable condition defined as having fewer than 3 bowel movements per week. It can affect people’s daily tasks, and lead to long term problems such as haemorrhoids and fecal impaction. Constipation affects twice as many older women than men (7). Increasing dietary fiber intakes is a good strategy to prevent constipation. Dietary fiber provides bulk in the colon and retains water, keeping the stool soft and easy to pass.
Dietary fiber’s effects on satiety and cholesterol levels both help reduce risk factors for chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease and obesity. When meals contain dietary fiber, the speed at which food travels from the stomach to the small intestine slows down (8). Nutrients are released more gradually into the blood, providing better control of blood glucose and delaying hunger signals.
Dietary fiber can modestly lower blood cholesterol levels (5). This is important for older women because they are no longer receive estrogen’s protective effects on the heart and blood vessels and their risk of heart disease approaches that of men’s. Reducing cholesterol is a proven strategy to reduce heart disease risk, and dietary fiber can help. The mechanism relates to bile, a digestive tract secretion used for normal digestion. Bile is made from cholesterol. Normally, the bile used as part of digestive is recycled once it reaches the large intestine. However, dietary fiber binds to bile and prevents it from being recycled. The body has to make more bile from cholesterol, thus lowering cholesterol levels (9).
While international recommendations vary, consuming 25 to 30 g of dietary fiber per day is recommended in many countries. Few people actually meet fiber recommendations (10). Plant foods, particularly whole grain cereals and foods made from them, fruits and vegetables, provide dietary fiber.
Calcium and vitamin D
Two critical nutrients for bone health are calcium and vitamin D. Our bones are not just hard, inert scaffolding, but actually a dynamic, living part of the body. The bones are always undergoing a process called remodelling: bones are continually being absorbed into the body and built up again. That’s how we can recover from broken bones. Calcium is the most prevalent mineral in bones and adequate calcium must be consumed to help the body to build up bone (8).
Vitamin D helps bone health in two ways. First of all, it is needed to help the body to absorb calcium from the diet (8). Secondly, it contributes to normal muscle function. People with vitamin D deficiency suffer from poor muscle tone and muscle pain (8). Supplementation with vitamin D has been shown to improve muscle performance in older adults with low vitamin D levels (11). Improvements in muscle function and mass help older adults’ ability to balance and prevents falls (12). Given that older women are at much greater risk of osteoporosis that other people, it’s critical that they consume enough vitamin D and calcium together to keep their bones healthy (13).