The Importance of Fiber and 9 Tips for Increasing the Fiber in Your Diet

Fiber

Eat more fiber. You’ve probably heard it before. But do you know why fiber is so good for your health?

Dietary fiber — found mainly in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes — is probably best known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation. But foods containing fiber can provide other health benefits as well, such as helping to maintain a healthy weight and lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Selecting tasty foods that provide fiber isn’t difficult. Find out how much dietary fiber you need, the foods that contain it, and how to add them to meals and snacks.

What is dietary fiber?

Dietary fiber, also known as roughage or bulk, includes all parts of plant foods that your body can’t digest or absorb. Unlike other food components, such as fats, proteins or carbohydrates — which your body breaks down and absorbs — fiber isn’t digested by your body. Instead, it passes relatively intact through your stomach, small intestine, colon and out of your body.

Fiber is commonly classified as soluble (it dissolves in water) or insoluble (it doesn’t dissolve):

  • Soluble fiber. This type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. It can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium.
  • Insoluble fiber. This type of fiber promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans and vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans and potatoes, are good sources of insoluble fiber.

Most plant-based foods, such as oatmeal and beans, contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. However, the amount of each type varies in different plant foods. To receive the greatest health benefit, eat a wide variety of high-fiber foods.

Benefits of a high-fiber diet

A high-fiber diet has many benefits, which include:

  • Normalizes bowel movements. Dietary fiber increases the weight and size of your stool and softens it. A bulky stool is easier to pass, decreasing your chance of constipation. If you have loose, watery stools, fiber may also help to solidify the stool because it absorbs water and adds bulk to stool.
  • Helps maintain bowel health. A high-fiber diet may lower your risk of developing hemorrhoids and small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease). Some fiber is fermented in the colon. Researchers are looking at how this may play a role in preventing diseases of the colon.
  • Lowers cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber found in beans, oats, flaxseed and oat bran may help lower total blood cholesterol levels by lowering low-density lipoprotein, or “bad,” cholesterol levels. Studies also have shown that fiber may have other heart-health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.
  • Helps control blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, fiber — particularly soluble fiber — can slow the absorption of sugar and help improve blood sugar levels. A healthy diet that includes insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Aids in achieving healthy weight. High-fiber foods generally require more chewing time, which gives your body time to register when you’re no longer hungry, so you’re less likely to overeat. Also, a high-fiber diet tends to make a meal feel larger and linger longer, so you stay full for a greater amount of time. And high-fiber diets also tend to be less “energy dense,” which means they have fewer calories for the same volume of food.

Another benefit attributed to dietary fiber is prevention of colorectal cancer. However, the evidence that fiber reduces colorectal cancer is mixed.

2012 University of Illinois study showed that dietary fiber promotes a shift in the gut toward different types of beneficial bacteria. The microbes that live in the gut, scientists now believe, can support a healthy gastrointestinal tract as well as affect our susceptibility to conditions as varied as type 2 diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Tips for increasing your fiber consumption

flax-seed-meal

Flax Seed Meal

1. Get the flax. Get a coffee grinder just for flax seeds, grind 1/2 cup at a time, and keep it in a tightly sealed glass jar in the fridge or freezer. Eat 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds a day. Sprinkle it on salads, grains, or vegetable dishes or mix it in a little unsweetened applesauce.

2. Load up on legumes. Beans beat out everything else for fiber content!

3. Bulk up on vegetables. With low levels of calories and high levels of antioxidants and protective phytochemicals, these excellent fiber sources should be heaped on your plate daily.

Quinoa cooked and uncooked

Quinoa

4. Go with the grain. Whole grains like brown rice or quinoa are rich in fiber, too.

5. Eat more fruit. Include a few servings of low-sugar fruits to your diet daily (berries are the highest in fiber and other protective phytochemicals). I also suggest you eat whole fruit as opposed to juices. A cup of apples has 3g of fiber and 13g of sugars, while a cup of apple juice has 0g fiber and 24g sugars. Some people say juicing give you concentrated nutrients, but this is not really true as the juicing process actually either destroys many nutrients or you lose them with the pulp. Remember that smoothies are different from juice and include the entire fruit. This recent study and others support my claims.

6. Go nuts. Include a few handfuls of almonds, walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts to your diet every day.

7. Start slowly. Switching abruptly to a high-fiber diet can cause gas and bloating. Increase your fiber intake slowly till you get up to 50 grams a day.

kale-apple-salad

Kale Apple Salad with Sunflower Seed

8. Consider a good fiber supplement. If you’re having trouble getting your fill of fiber, choose a supplement that contains both soluble and insoluble fiber and no sweeteners or additives (although really the best way to consume fiber is in the food you eat because you also then get all of the other nutrients in the food). Many people just starting on a whole food diet think they have to eat these foods separately. Those who have been eating this way for awhile know full-well how to mix these foods into tasty dishes. Add nuts and fruits to salad greens. Shred root veggies like jerusalem artichoke, carrot and beet into salad. Sprinkle flax seed or chia seed onto oatmeal or other whole grain breakfast cereal, salads or other dishes. Make fruit and veggie smoothies. Beans and nuts are great on and in everything. I make beans into soups, entrees, casseroles, desserts, dips, cheese – you name it!

9. Choose GM. A good source of soluble fiber is glucomannan (GM), or konjac. Many companies sell it in capsule form. You can take 2 to 4 capsules with a glass of water, 30 to 60 minutes before eating. Don’t take any medications within 1 hour before or 2 hours after taking it because the fiber may absorb the medication.

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