We are often told to add more fiber in our diets, especially as we grow older. Despite this, many Americans still don't get the fiber they need. A low fiber diet is a leading cause of constipation, and chronic constipation can damage the colon, rectum, and anus. Left unchecked, chronic constipation puts pressure on the wall of the intestine and can increase your chances for a condition of the colon called diverticulosis or an even more serious disease known as diverticulitis.
What is Diverticulitis?
Diverticulitis occurs when the wall of the large intestine (also known as the colon) gives way or stretches to create a bulge or pouch called a diverticula. This condition is referred to as diverticulosis. Interestingly, diverticulosis is not as common in other parts of the world. Researchers are not sure of the exact cause of diverticula formation; some studies link formation with bacterial infections, poor microbiome, or chronic constipation. Differences in diet may play a role, as people in the United States are more likely to maintain a low-fiber, high-fat diet, which is linked to diverticulosis. Diverticula are common, and more than half of Americans over the age of 60 have them, and many people don't experience symptoms. When a diverticula becomes infected or inflamed, however, there can be serious consequences.
Diverticulitis is more than just a bit of abdominal pain. It is among the most common gastrointestinal conditions requiring medical treatment, and is a major reason for hospitalizations in the United States. Symptoms of diverticular disease can include blood in your stool, fever, severe abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
These symptoms can be uncomfortable or even debilitating on their own, but more severe complications can occur. A rupture in your colon is possible, which can lead to a condition known as peritonitis. This infection of the lining of your abdominal cavity is potentially life-threatening. If you begin to experience severe pain when you move, and your abdomen is bloated and rigid, get medical help immediately.
Does a High-Fiber Diet Reduce the Risk of Diverticulitis?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables is a good idea for many reasons. There is no perfect formula, but maintaining a high-fiber diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits may reduce your risk of acute attacks. Ensuring you get enough dietary fiber helps to soften your stool, allowing it to pass through your digestive system more easily. This can prevent blockages and avoid stressing your intestinal wall, which can lead to the formation of diverticula.
Adding high-fiber foods to your diet does not have to be life-altering. Small steps like exchanging white bread for whole wheat is an easy move away from a low-fiber diet. Adding in foods such as fruits like prunes and pears, kidney beans, black beans, squash, spinach, peas, and other whole-grain pastas and breads will all help raise the overall level of fiber in your diet. You may want to consider adding a fiber supplement to introduce more fiber into your diet in a controlled manner since you can more easily measure the amount of fiber you are adding.
What Foods Should I Eat if I Have Diverticulitis?
If you have been diagnosed with diverticular disease, your doctor will first have to determine how serious your condition is. If the infection in your colon is too severe, you may be placed on a clear liquid diet until your symptoms subside. When you are able to eat solid food again, your doctor may refer you to a dietitian to help you establish a diet plan that best suits you.
Initially, you will need to use caution and introduce fiber back into your diet slowly, as too much could stress tissue that is still recovering. Lowering the amount of fiber in your diet for a short time will decrease the amount of peristalsis and allow your colon to heal.
Once your symptoms subside, you will begin adding low-fiber foods into your diet such as white rice, low-fiber cereals, olive oil, squash, spinach, beets, and animal proteins like eggs, poultry and fish. Your doctor will help you know when you can begin to slowly increase the amount of fiber in your diet by reintroducing foods to slowly raise the amount of fiber in your diet.
Managing your fiber intake can take some work, and the amount of dietary fiber you need will depend on your age, sex, and the severity of your symptoms and condition. Regardless of how many grams of fiber you may need a day, the foods you will likely need to work into your diet are going to be the same. Beans, fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain bread are the backbone of a high-fiber diet. You may also need to cut back on red meat and low-fiber or high-fat foods if those were a large part of your diet.
Foods to Avoid If You Have Diverticulitis
Until recently, doctors suggested avoiding foods such as seeds nuts and corn, which can be hard to digest. These foods are no longer frowned upon, but you should still use caution if you are recovering from acute diverticulitis. When looking at foods to avoid, there are two things to consider. First are foods that may contribute to the inflammation of diverticula in the first place. Second are foods that can cause discomfort if you have diverticulitis.
Fried foods and refined grains, as well as foods containing trans-fats should be avoided, as research has shown these can increase your chances of diverticulosis. Your doctor will likely advise you to cut out sugary and fatty foods as well. After an acute attack, consult your physician before you make changes to what you eat. Your doctor can help you monitor your diet and plan foods that will best manage your symptoms and hopefully decrease your chances your condition will worsen over time.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute Diverticulitis
Treatment of diverticulitis can seem aggressive compared to some other medical conditions of the digestive tract, but some symptoms of diverticulitis are similar to other serious conditions such as colon cancer. A colonoscopy and even a CT scan may be necessary to ensure a diagnosis is accurate. Other issues such as peritonitis or fistulas are related to diverticular disease, and can cause serious health problems. This is why it is important to seek treatment if you are experiencing extreme pain in your abdomen. Even if you have recovered from acute diverticulitis, there is still relatively good chance your symptoms could return. Rather than waiting to see, consulting with a physician can help ensure you are doing everything you can to stay healthy.
Make an appointment today with Dr. Sameer Islam if you want to know more about how to manage your symptoms and maintain good digestive health.