Avoiding Diverticulitis & Diverticulosis

Although a fiber-rich diet has been proven beyond a doubt to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and colon cancer as well as the impact of other health conditions such as diabetes, the average American continues to consume only about half of the 25-30 grams of fiber recommended by health experts. With the rise in the proportion of older people in the population, we are beginning to see the cumulative effect of a lifetime of poor food choices. Consider these 1996 statistics on heart disease and diabetes from the Centers for Disease Control and 1994 statistics of new colon cancer cases from the National Cancer Institute: Heart Disease Cause of Death Rank: 1 - Annual Deaths: 733,834 - Age-Adjusted Death Rate: 135 per 100,000 population - Cases Reported in 1994: 22.3 million

Diabetes Cause of Death Rank: 7 - Annual Deaths: 61,559 - Age-Adjusted Death Rate: 14 per 100,000 population

Colon Cancer - New Cases Reported in 1994 White Males: 37 per 100,000 - Black Males: 44 per 100,000 - White Females: 27 per 100,000 - Black Females: 37 per 100,000

Fiber is composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin - all components of plant cell walls - and pectins and gums from the plant sap. Humans do not possess the necessary enzymes to digest these substances so they pass through the digestive system virtually unchanged although some of them are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine to produce acids and gas.
In the digestive process, dietary fiber:

  • Lowers blood cholesterol levels by absorbing fat molecules not utilized for energy production
  • Slows down the entry time of sugar into the bloodstream which is important for persons sensitive to low or high blood sugar levels
  • Encourages the growth of "friendly" bacteria in the intestinal tract
  • Decreases transit time which reduces toxic by-products produced when wastes remain in the intestinal tract for more than 24 hours
  • Absorbs water which adds bulk to stools making them easier to eliminate

Although all of these functions are important to overall health, the bulking of stools gains importance as we age. The large intestine or colon, a 5- to 6-foot-long tube at the end of the digestive tract, compacts body waste in the last stop before elimination. Muscle rings along the colon contract rhythmically to push the waste through and finally, out of the body. When there is not enough fiber present, the waste material becomes too compact and the muscle rings have to work harder to push the waste through the system. In many people, the increased pressure causes the lining of the intestine to bulge out in small pockets at weak areas in the muscle walls - a condition called diverticulosis. While doctors estimate that half of all Americans over 60 and almost everyone over 80, have some degree of diverticulosis, the lack of fiber in the typical American diet make it highly probable that a large number of the under-60 population are at risk. Most people with diverticulosis are not aware of their condition, but about 20 percent find out in a painful way. In these cases, one or more of the diverticular pockets ruptures and causes an infection. When the rupture occurs, diverticulosis becomes diverticulitis. The symptoms are acute abdominal pain, fever, and nausea. Antibiotics and a liquid diet are the usual treatment, but in severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the affected section of the intestine. A fiber-rich diet can keep diverticulosis from becoming diverticulitis.

Unless we make a conscious effort to change our eating habits, we can expect diverticulosis to become more and more common among younger people. It is never too early or too late to increase your fiber intake. When increasing fiber intake, it is important to drink a least 8 glasses of water every day to avoid constipation. Also, fiber should be added to the diet slowly, over weeks, to allow the body to adjust to the change. At 5 grams per serving, Fiber Power is an ideal way to slowly increase your fiber intake.

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