Food That May Cause Digestive Distress in Older People

by Dorian Martin Patient Advocate

As we age, our digestive tract may start to go into rebellion with uncomfortable results. More than 16 percent of people over the age of 70 report having fecal incontinence while others describe having more gas, bloating, burping and stomach distension.

Senior woman in pain.

Fecal Incontinence

Certain foods (fructose, lactose and fructan) may cause older people to have fecal incontinence—also known as accidental bowel leakage—as they age. Aging nerves and muscle degeneration also can be a factor in developing this issue.

Senior man with a digestive disorder.

Other Digestive Issues

Food also can be the culprit if you are regularly experiencing increased gas, bloating and/or burping. Bacteria in the colon can cause food to ferment, thus releasing hydrogen and carbon dioxide. While this is a natural process, some people find they have more of these issues as they age. Furthermore, these body functions can be smellier than similar occurrences at a younger age.

Milk and cheese.

Common Sources of Lactose

Lactose can be found in milk, cheese, butter, pudding, custards, cream soups, cream sauces, yogurt, ice cream, ice milk, sherbet, whipping cream and coffee creamer.

Baguettes stacked.

Less Well-Known Food Sources of Lactose

Other foods may container smaller amounts of lactose, including bread, baked goods, salad dressings, milk chocolate, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, instant potatoes, soups, rice mixes, noodle mixes, lunch meats that aren’t kosher, candies, bakery mixes (pancakes, biscuits and cookies), sugar beets, peas, lima beans and organ meats.

Lactose free icon.

Testing: Lactose Intolerant Breath Test

This procedure asks a person to drink a lactose-heavy beverage. The doctors then analyze the breath at regular intervals. If the lactose isn’t digested properly, it will be fermented by bacteria, which will cause high levels of hydrogen gas. Having too much of this gas means you’re lactose intolerant.

Glass of soda.

Common Food Sources for Fructose

Fructose is often found in onions, artichokes, pears and wheat and is used as a sweetner in some colas and other types of soft drinks. It also can be found in applesauce, honey, agave, apples, apple juice, salad dressing, watermelon, dates, mango nectar, raisins, melons, sweet pickles and canned fruits.

Doctor talking to patient.

Testing for Fructose Intolerance

A fructose intolerance breath test takes a baseline assessment to determine hydrogen gas. You’re then asked to drink a cup of fructose that’s been dissolved in water and your breath is assessed regularly over the next three hours. A high presence of hydrogen in those samples suggests your body has difficulty absorbing fructose.


Foods with Fructan

Fructan can be found in bananas, onions, garlic, chicory root, wheat, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, some beverages, some ice creams and many processed foods, especially high-fiber foods.

Dorian Martin
Meet Our Writer
Dorian Martin

Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.