Eat more fiber! I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but do you really know why fiber is good for your health? Let’s look at the facts of fiber and find some tasty foods to help you “Fiber Up” this fall.
Dietary fibers are indigestible complex carbohydrates found in the walls of plant cells. Although they are considered carbohydrates, fiber is resistant to the body’s digestive enzymes. Because of this, fiber supplies no nutrients or calories. When you’re determining the amount of carbohydrate in a certain food, you can actually subtract the grams of fiber from the total grams of carbohydrate to get an accurate carbohydrate count.
Types of Fiber
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble 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, and barley.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. This type of fiber promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, so it can be beneficial for those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Dark leafy greens, whole wheat foods, seeds, nuts, 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.
Positive Effects of Fiber
So, now that we know about the different types of fiber, let’s look at the positive health benefits in a little more detail.
Fiber Lowers Cholesterol
Soluble fiber decreases blood cholesterol levels, and therefore, reduces the risk of heart disease. Research indicates that soluble fiber binds to bile acids in the intestines, causing them to be eliminated. Since fewer bile acids are available, the liver draws cholesterol, primarily LDL or the “bad” cholesterol, from the bloodstream to make more. This reduces the level of blood cholesterol. Research also indicates that fiber soluble fiber may lower blood pressure and inflammation as well.
Fiber Helps Control Blood Sugar Levels
In people with diabetes, fiber – particularly soluble fiber – helps to stabilize blood sugar levels by delaying stomach emptying. This slows the rate of sugar absorption and helps improve blood sugar levels. A healthy diet that included insoluble fiber may also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Fiber Normalizes Bowel Movements
If you’re like most people, when you hear the word “fiber,” you automatically think poop. And, you’re right! 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 help to solidify the stool because it absorbs water and adds bulk.
If you decide to increase your fiber intake, make sure you are also drinking enough water. This is crucial for normal bowel movements and to prevent constipation.
Fiber Aids in Achieving Healthy Weight
High-fiber foods tend to be more filling than low-fiber foods; thus, increasing satiety (the feeling of fullness). This is achieved by adding bulk to food without adding calories. Remember, your body cannot digest fiber, so it doesn’t provide calories or nutrients to your diet.
Fiber Helps Maintain a Healthy Colon
Fiber, particularly insoluble fiber, may decrease the risk of colon cancer by increasing the speed of elimination. This reduces the amount of time harmful carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) are in contact with the intestinal cells. Also, stool contents, including carcinogens, become diluted and less harmful. It has also been discovered that some fiber ferments in the colon, while other does not. Researchers are looking into how this may play a role in preventing diseases of the colon as well.
In addition to colon cancer, fiber may also reduce the risk of diverticulosis and hemorrhoids. It reduces the risk of diverticulosis by decreasing the pressure within the colon. And, it reduces the risk of hemorrhoids by decreasing the straining associated with stool elimination.
Now that we know why it’s so important to get enough fiber, how much of it do we really need? The Institute of Medicine has set the following guidelines:
Adults Age 51 and Older
Men: 30 grams
Women: 21 grams
Adults Age 50 and Younger
Men: 38 grams
Women: 25 grams
Whole foods, rather than fiber supplements, are generally better. Fiber supplements – such as Metamucil, Citrucel, and FiberCon – don’t provide the same variety of fibers, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients that foods do. Originally promoted for reducing constipation, many of these supplements now also advertise the benefits for reducing blood cholesterol levels. While these benefits from fiber supplements are attractive, the high cost and lack of nutritional value make them a second choice to a good diet. Most fiber pills actually contain little fiber.
Some people may find that they still need a fiber supplement if dietary changes aren’t sufficient, or it they have certain medical conditions. These would include things like constipation, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome. Check with your doctor, though, before taking any fiber supplement.
Cramping, diarrhea, and intestinal gas are some of the problems associated with a sudden increase in fiber intake. Gradually increasing your fiber over a period of six to eight weeks can minimize undesirable effects. These side effects usually disappear within a few days after the body has become accustomed to a high-fiber diet. Also, increasing your water intake can help reduce negative side effects. An excessive fiber intake can cause fiber to bind with certain essential minerals and cause them to be eliminated instead of absorbed into the bloodstream. While it is difficult to receive too much fiber from foods, an overuse of supplements could result in an extremely high and dangerous level of fiber intake.
Tips to “Fiber-Up” this Fall
Need some ideas for adding more fiber into your meals and snacks? Try these suggestions:
Jump-start your day. For breakfast choose oatmeal or a high-fiber breakfast cereal — 5 or more grams of fiber a serving. Opt for cereals with “whole grain,” “bran” or “fiber” in the name. Add a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran, chia seeds, or flax seeds to your oatmeal or favorite cereal.
Switch to whole grains. Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Look for breads that list whole wheat, whole-wheat flour or another whole grain as the first ingredient on the label and have least 2 grams of dietary fiber a serving. Experiment with brown rice, wild rice, barley, whole-wheat pasta and bulgur wheat.
Bulk up baked goods. Substitute whole-grain flour for half or all of the white flour when baking. Try adding crushed bran cereal, unprocessed wheat bran or uncooked oatmeal to muffins, cakes and cookies.
Lean on legumes. Beans, peas and lentils are excellent sources of fiber. Add kidney beans to canned soup or a green salad. Or make nachos with refried black beans, lots of fresh veggies, whole-wheat tortilla chips and salsa.
Eat more fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals. Try to eat five or more servings daily.
Make snacks count. Fresh fruits, raw vegetables, low-fat popcorn and whole-grain crackers are all good choices. An occasional handful of nuts or dried fruits also is a healthy, high-fiber snack — although be aware that nuts and dried fruits are high in calories.
Stay happy, healthy, and N motion, AND REMEMBER…age is just a number!