Fiber-full eating for better health and lower cholesterol

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The American Heart Association and the FDA recommend that we all eat at least 25 grams of dietary fiber per day. But what is it, how do we know how much we’re eating, and where did that number come from, anyway?

What are the types of fiber?

Dietary fiber is a good carbohydrate, also known as roughage, found in plant foods (not supplements). There are two kinds, soluble or insoluble, and both are really good for us. Soluble fiber becomes a thick gel in our intestines, which slows digestion (which keeps blood sugars from spiking) and traps fats so they can’t all be absorbed (which lowers cholesterol levels). Sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal, beans, lentils, and many fruits. Insoluble fiber helps keep our stools soft and regular, always a good thing! Sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains, beans, lentils, and most vegetables. Both soluble and insoluble fiber make us feel full, which helps us to eat less.

Why is fiber so good for us?

But fiber does so, so much more. In a recent research study published in The Lancet, investigators pooled the results from 243 studies looking at health effects of dietary fiber. They excluded any studies about fiber supplements — this was all about fiber from food. They ended up with data from over 4,600 people, and found a very strong relationship between higher dietary fiber intake and better health outcomes. Basically, intake of at least 25 grams of food fiber a day is associated with a lower weight, blood pressure, blood sugars, cholesterol, as well as lower risk of developing (or dying from) diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and breast or colon cancer. Study results were extremely consistent, and the dose-response curve was very linear, meaning the more fiber, the better the outcomes. This makes us believe the results are very real and not due to some other factor related to study participants’ diet or lifestyle.

Consuming good carbs means more daily fiber

Unfortunately, most of us are consuming fewer than 20 grams of fiber per day. I know many people who shy away from the carbs in whole grains, beans, and fruit, thus missing out on all that healthy fiber. But here’s the deal: there’s good carbs and bad carbs, and whole grains, beans, and vegetables are all good, folks. It’s the quality of the carb that counts. Worried about gassy effects? In the short term, start low and use simethicone (a common, gentle anti-gas medication) as needed. Your body will become accustomed over time, and the effects will diminish.

Fiber-packed meals are easy

Let’s put together a very simple yet flexible meal using boiled red lentils, store-bought or homemade hummus, whole-wheat wraps, and a simple salad made with mixed greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers dressed with only lemon juice and olive oil. This meal is so easy and healthy, and it can be served to guests or packed up for lunch at the work desk. This meal has half the recommended daily fiber and almost 20 grams of protein, plus calcium, iron, and potassium.

Mediterranean-Style Heart-Healthy High-Fiber Buffet

Many of these ingredients can be purchased inexpensively or prepared super-quickly, and no one will know you weren’t cooking all day.


Cooked and seasoned red lentils (1 cup raw lentils to 3 cups water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes, then sprinkle with sea salt and lemon juice. Add chopped fresh herbs too, if you like. Serve hot or cold.)

Very simple salad (mixed greens, sliced cherry tomatoes, and chopped cucumber, dressed in extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, and black pepper. Toss it all up and serve.)

1 container hummus (or you can make your own)

Whole-wheat wraps

Optional: kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, baba ganouj, or other Mediterranean goodies, low-salt versions preferred


There are many resources available to guide you on healthy high-fiber food choices. Basically, consuming fruits, veggies, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds regularly will ensure that you get at least 25 grams of fiber every day!

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Trouble keeping information in mind? Could be sleep, mood — or age

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You’re heading to the market. You need to pick up eggs, cheese, milk, bread, tomatoes, carrots, and string beans. Can you keep those items in mind by repeating them to yourself? You arrive at your usual market, but it is unexpectedly closed. A passerby gives you verbal directions to a new market. Can you close your eyes and visualize the route? Both activities tap working memory — that is, your memory for information that you need to actively keep “in mind” and manipulate often.

We use this type of memory every day. For example, when we are comparing two or more options — whether dinner entrees, health plans, or mutual funds — we are using our working memory to keep the details of the different options in mind.

The frontal lobes direct the components of working memory

The two frontal lobes of the brain play important roles in certain types of memory. Working memory is typically divided into two components, plus an executive system that shifts attention between them. One component helps you keep verbal information in your head by silently repeating it to yourself. Another component processes spatial information, such as mentally planning the route you will drive to avoid rush hour traffic.

Virtually all tasks involving working memory activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of your frontal lobes right behind your forehead. The left hemisphere of your brain is more involved when you are repeating verbal information to yourself. The right hemisphere is more involved when you are mentally following a route. Interestingly, as a working memory task becomes more difficult, both hemispheres become engaged regardless of whether the task is verbal or spatial.

New research shows sleep and mood affect working memory

Recently, researchers from California and Michigan conducted a pair of studies to understand the effects of sleep, mood, and age on working memory. Two aspects of these studies are novel. First, although each of these effects has previously been looked at separately, this research examined their combined effects and how they interact with each other. Second, the researchers examined a community sample of adults aged 21 to 77. This adds to the real-world generalizability of the results.

The first study found that poor sleep quality and depressed mood each independently reduce the capacity of working memory — the number of items that can be kept in mind. The second study confirmed the results of the first. It also found that greater age reduced the precision of working memory — the details of each item, such as whether the cheese you need to pick up is swiss or cheddar.

Improving mood may help

The implications of this research are clear. Although we cannot stop getting older, we can work to improve our sleep quality and mood. Depressed mood may be due to external life events (such as retirement, a new diagnosis, or the death of a friend), or to biological factors (such as alterations in our brain chemistry). Regardless of its cause, depression can be treated by medications or talk therapy. Studies show that combining these approaches provides the greatest benefit. Not interested in taking medications or talking with someone about your mood? Aerobic exercise,meditation, and relaxation therapy have each been shown to improve mood.

Better sleep may improve working memory

Poor sleep quality may be due to a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea (not getting enough oxygen during sleep). Or, it could be secondary to a medical problem, such as heart failure.

Sleep disturbances may also result from habits, such as doing wakeful activities in bed. Sleep experts note that the feeling of being in bed should signal the body that it is time to go to sleep. It is best to use your bed only for sleeping and sexual activity. If you spend hours in bed talking on the phone, eating meals, or doing other activities, you are sending the wrong signals to your body about the purpose of being in bed. Learning about healthy sleep habits can help.

People may also get into a bad sleep cycle by repeatedly staying up too late at night or sleeping too long in the morning. Most people need about eight hours of sleep each night, with the average range between seven and nine. Many people think that they need more sleep as they get older, but that actually isn’t true. On average, older adults need the same amount of sleep as when they were younger — or maybe even 30 minutes less. If you sleep too long one day, you’ll often have difficulty falling asleep the following night.

The bottom line

We can improve our working memory — our ability to do things in our head — if we improve our mood and the quality of our sleep.

Follow me on Twitter@abudson

The post Trouble keeping information in mind? Could be sleep, mood — or age appeared first on Harvard Health Blog.

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Healthy eating for older adults

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Eating right can help keep your body and mind healthy and extend your quality of life. But some older Americans may face barriers to getting enough nutrients or calories.

Many ways aging can affect appetite

Physiological changes that come with aging can result in reduced calorie needs, which can lead to decreased food intake and altered body composition, even in healthy older adults. This can be compounded by diminished smell and taste, and changes in hormone levels that affect how quickly you feel full. Depression, lack of independence, and social isolation can make food less appealing, further contributing to a less than ideal intake.

Chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia can affect appetite, energy needs, and weight. Older adults may be on multiple medications that may interact with nutrients, or produce side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and sensory changes that affect smell and taste. Oral and dental problems can affect chewing or swallowing.

All of these factors can lead to decreased intake of calories and nutrients, resulting in unplanned weight loss and lack of energy.

Overcoming barriers to healthy eating

These strategies can help overcome some of the barriers to healthy eating you may face as you get older.

Aim for quality, using the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate as a guide. At most meals try to fill half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter of your plate with whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, or whole-wheat bread, and the final quarter of your plate with lean protein such as fish, poultry, beans, or eggs. Pick healthy fats, which can serve as a source of concentrated, healthy calories. Healthy fats include olive oil, canola oil, peanuts and other nuts, peanut butter, avocado, and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Limit unhealthy saturated fat including fatty red meat. Work dietary fiber into your diet. Fiber helps to keep bowel function normal and can help decrease risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The Institute of Medicine recommends that total fiber intake for adults older than 50 should be at least 30 grams per day for men and 21 grams for women. Most fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are good sources of fiber. Nuts and seeds are also good sources, but whole-grain breads and beans may be easier to chew if you have dental problems or dentures. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids as you increase your fiber intake. Adjust portion sizes. If you’re trying to maintain a healthy body weight, reduce portion sizes instead of sacrificing components of a balanced meal. If you need to gain a few pounds, try to increase your portions rather than eating foods that are high in added sugar and unhealthy saturated fat. Some older adults find their appetite is greater in the morning and during the day, compared to evening. If so, try to have a healthy breakfast that includes protein, whole grains, and fruit along with a balanced afternoon meal. Then go light on dinner. Troubleshooting tips

As you get older, you may need to think creatively when obstacles to healthy eating crop up. For example, if you have trouble getting out of the house or managing heavy grocery bags, try a grocery delivery service. This allows you the convenience of shopping online and having your food delivered right to your door.

If cooking for yourself every day feels like too much trouble or you find your energy flagging by evening, try to prepare a few meals on the weekend. Keep them refrigerated or frozen and ready to reheat during the week. One-pot meals are a great way to quickly cook healthy, balanced meals that are inexpensive, which may also be an important consideration as you get older.

Physical activity is important for all adults, including older adults. Exercise helps build and strengthen muscles, increase energy levels, maintain bone health, rev up your metabolism, and lift your mood. It can help boost your appetite too. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.

Men and women are living longer. Making an effort to eat healthy can help ensure you’ll continue to enjoy an active lifestyle well into your 80s and 90s.

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