Nutrition Article:

Listen to your gut: Good health requires good digestion

by Pam McGaffin

Your digestive system is rather like the engine in your car. When it's running smoothly, you tend to forget about it. When it isn't, it can really cramp your style, so to speak.

Heartburn, constipation, nausea and diarrhea can be your digestive tract's way of telling you to pay attention to what you eat, according to the Healthy Aging Partnership (HAP), a coalition of 40 not-for-profit and public organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of older adults.

You're wise to listen to your gut (as well as the other parts of your body.) Your digestive system has an important job: absorbing nutrients, ridding our bodies of waste and toxins and helping us fight sickness and infection.

If it's not working right for whatever reason, malnourishment, digestive disorders and disease can result.

Older adults need to pay particular attention to their digestive health. As we age, our bodies produce less saliva and stomach acid, making it more difficult to break down and absorb some nutrients. Medication side effects and a dulled sense of taste and smell can lead to other problems.

HAP offers these tips to help older adults keep their digestion on track:

  • Eat foods with fiber. Choosing fiber-rich foods -- colorful fruits and vegetables as well as legumes and whole grains - ensures a nutritious diet as well as good digestion. A high-fiber diet also helps prevent weight gain, constipation and diarrhea and can also lower your risk of developing colon cancer. When increasing your fiber intake, start slowly, and work towards a goal of 20 to 25 grams of fiber daily.
  • Drink plenty of water. Water and healthy beverages such as milk and fruit juices keep you hydrated and help your body dissolve nutrients and process waste. It is particularly important to drink plenty of fluids if you are increasing your fiber intake. Limit alcoholic drinks to no more than one a day for women, two for men.
  • Cut the saturated fat. Eating too much fat, such as that found in red meat and fried and processed foods, bogs down the digestive system, leading to heartburn, constipation and bloating, not to mention an increased risk of colon cancer.
  • Maintain good eating habits. Eat moderate portions, regular meals and take the time to chew - and enjoy -- your food. If you gulp down your meals, you're likely to pay for it later with bloating and excess gas.
  • Control your weight. Overweight people are more prone to constipation, bloating and digestive tract disorders, including acid reflux.
  • Get regular exercise. Walking and other aerobic activities, besides being good for you, stimulates the intestinal muscles, helping the body eliminate waste.
  • Stop smoking. In addition to upping your cancer risk, tobacco increases stomach acid and contributes to a number of digestive conditions, including peptic ulcers and Crohn's disease or inflammation of the small intestine.
  • See a doctor if problems persist: If your digestive distress doesn't respond to dietary or lifestyle changes or becomes more frequent or severe, see your doctor. You may have a digestive disorder that requires specific treatment.

For more health tips as well as information on other issues related to life as an older adult, call HAP's free and confidential help line at 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464) or e-mail hap@seniorservices.org.

To learn more about HAP and its 40 partner agencies, visit the Web site at www.4elders.org.