There are few easy solutions when it comes to improving your health, but eating more fiber may be one of the easiest. Read on to learn why fiber is so fab, and how to fit more fiber into your daily diet.
What is Dietary Fiber?
Dietary fiber is a nutrient that comes only from plants. It’s technically a type of carbohydrate, but although we can eat it, our bodies can’t actually digest it; instead, it passes through the digestive system more or less intact.
The term “dietary fiber” actually includes about 25 different types of indigestible plant components, not all of which are technically fibers. Each of these plant components affects the body in a different way; for example, a component called inulin helps increase certain kinds of good bacteria in the gut, while a component called pectin helps lower cholesterol. There are two categories of dietary fiber: soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, and insoluble fiber, which doesn’t.
The Benefits of Dietary Fiber
1. It facilitates weight loss.
Because it isn’t digestible, fiber can’t be broken down by the body into simple sugars. This means that fiber contains fewer calories than other forms of carbohydrates. What’s more, fiber absorbs water and swells up inside the digestive tract, causing you to feel more full between mealtimes by triggering signals of satiety from the brain to the body. Eating more fiber and drinking plenty of water throughout the day is an easy way to control your appetite and boost your weight loss efforts.
2. It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Soluble fiber reduces the body’s absorption of “bad” cholesterol, which helps lower overall cholesterol levels. Early studies show evidence that fiber may help lower blood pressure as well, though more research is still needed to determine how.
3. It regulates blood sugar levels and improves insulin sensitivity.
Soluble fiber slows down the rate at which sugar from carbohydrates is absorbed into the bloodstream. This helps the body keep its blood sugar levels stable by preventing blood sugar “spikes” after meals. Fiber also helps regulate the amount of fatty acids—molecules that contribute to insulin resistance—in the body, which improves insulin sensitivity in both diabetics and nondiabetics.
Insoluble fiber helps solidify and soften stool by absorbing water and adding bulk, and it also causes food to move through the digestive system more quickly. This makes your stool easier to pass and helps you “go” on a regular basis. Fiber is the only nutrient that has this effect, so it’s a very important part of a healthy diet!
5. It prevents disease.
Because of fiber’s other fabulous benefits, a high-fiber diet can significantly lower your risk of developing a number of chronic illnesses and gastrointestinal disorders, including:
- Coronary heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Duodenal ulcers
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
How to Get The Most out of Fiber
The Institute of Medicine gives these recommendations for daily fiber intake:
Men: Age 18 to 50 = 38 grams Age 50+ = 30 grams
Women: Age 18 to 50 = 25 grams Age 50+ = 21 grams
Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are a better source of fiber than supplements like Metamucil or Benefiber because they contain a broader variety of fibers as well as additional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. That means you’ll get far more nutritional value from healthy whole foods than from a powdered supplement or a Fiber One brownie, which may contain only one or two types of fiber.
Fiber is most effective for appetite control and relief of constipation when you drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Any type of sugar-free beverage will work, but plain water is the best option—caffeinated drinks can make constipation worse, and carbonated drinks exacerbate gas and bloating, as do certain artificial sweeteners often used in drink additives.
Increasing your dietary fiber intake too quickly can cause gas, bloating, and stomach cramps, so it’s best to do it slow and steady over the course of several weeks. Follow our meal plan below to gradually increase your fiber intake for maximum health benefits. Each week builds on the last; this means that each new recommendation should be implemented in addition to the previous recommendations.
High-Fiber Meal Plan
Mid-morning or afternoon snack:
3 cups of low-fat microwave popcorn
(Total daily fiber: ~3-4 g)
Dinner (side dish):
1 medium sweet potato, baked — add 1 Tbsp butter and sprinkle with cinnamon
(Total daily fiber: ~7-9 g)
1 medium apple, with peel
Toss 1 cup of spinach with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and baby carrots
Add ½ cup of lowfat cottage cheese for protein and calcium
Use a low-fat, low-sodium salad dressing like those available at Foods4YourHealth
Top with 1 oz of slivered almonds
(Total daily fiber: ~16-18 g)
Cook 1 cup of plain oatmeal (NOT the flavored kind that comes in packets)
Add a handful of fresh raspberries for flavor
Sweeten with Equal or Splenda if desired
(Total daily fiber: ~24-28 g)
A High-Fiber Finale
For more great information about fiber, be sure to check out this handy resource from Harborview Medical Center, which features a worksheet with formulas to figure out your current fiber intake and a handy table showing the precise fiber content of various high-fiber foods.
We wish you well in the week ahead, and we hope you’ll stop by again soon to learn more about how to make nutrition work for you. Now go have a fun, fabulous, fiber-filled day!