Getting to a healthy weight and staying there is an important way to prevent heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and other serious conditions. Many of us know firsthand just how hard it can be to reach and maintain that healthy weight. And there’s no shortage of ways to try to get there: You can count calories, carbs, or points. You can cut back on fat or sugar. You can try any number of popular diets that forbid certain foods, or focus on just one (the grapefruit diet, anyone?). Any of these approaches might work for you. Or they might not — in large part because they are complicated.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that something as simple as aiming to eat 30 grams of fiber each day can help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and improve your body’s response to insulin just as effectively as a more complicated diet.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School compared the effectiveness of two diets with help from 240 volunteers. Half were asked to follow the American Heart Association’s (AHA) diet for preventing heart disease, in which you try to eat more fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and lean protein but also cut back on salt, sugar, fat, and alcohol. The other half were asked to follow a diet in which the only goal was to eat 30 grams or more of fiber each day. Neither group received advice or recommendations for exercise. All of the volunteers had metabolic syndrome — that is, all of them had high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol, and were overweight. This cluster of health issues greatly increases the risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The participants in each group averaged 19 grams of fiber a day. Both groups lost weight, lowered their blood pressure, and improved their response to insulin. Those following the AHA diet lost a bit more weight (5.9 pounds) than those on the high-fiber diet (4.6 pounds), but both groups were able to maintain their weight loss for 12 months.
The results of the study don’t prove that a high-fiber diet is necessarily as good (or better) for health than the AHA diet or the highly in-vogue Mediterranean diet. What it does tell us is that one simple step can make a difference and that encouraging healthy behaviors may be more effective than discouraging unhealthy ones.
“In addition to weight control, higher fiber diets can also help to prevent type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. But, he cautioned, it’s best to get fiber from food, not from supplements.
Adding fiber to your diet can be easy and delicious (see “Good sources of fiber,” below). A high-fiber cereal or oatmeal with berries on top is a great way to start the day. For lunch, enjoy a salad sprinkled with chickpeas or kidney beans and some nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, or pecans). Make a stir-fry for dinner using a variety of vegetables, and top with pumpkin or sunflower seeds.
Snacks offer another opportunity to get fiber. Whole fruit, nuts, and seeds, or a berry smoothie with wheat bran or flaxseed are good options, as are dried fruit (prunes, raisins), popcorn, and bean dips paired with veggies or whole-grain crackers.
Good sources of fiber
|Food||Serving size||Fiber (grams)|
|Fiber One||½ cup||14|
|Shredded Wheat||1 cup||6|
|Oatmeal (cooked)||1 cup||4|
|Barley (cooked)||1 cup||9|
|Brown rice (cooked)||1 cup||4|
|Whole-wheat bread||1 slice||3|
|Spinach||1 cup cooked||4|
|Brussels sprouts||½ cup||2|
|Green beans||½ cup||2|
|Kidney beans (cooked)||½ cup||6|
|Lima beans (cooked)||½ cup||6|
|Baked beans (canned)*||½ cup||5|
|Pear (with skin)||1 medium||6|
|Apple (with skin)||1 medium||4|
|NUTS AND SEEDS|
|* Choose no-salt or low-salt versions of these foods.
Originally written by: Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health