You’ve probably heard that you should eat more fiber. 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. Eating a diet high in fiber may provide other health benefits as well, such as helping to maintain a healthy weight and lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Public health guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise Americans to eat between 20 and 30 grams of fiber a day, but most adults don’t even eat half that much.
This isn’t surprising, since fiber refers to the indigestible portion of plant foods, and in the largely refined standard American diet, healthful fibers are often processed right out.
Unless you regularly eat whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds, you may be missing out on the healthiest forms of fiber available – and that could be a problem.
What is dietary fiber?
Dietary fiber 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. This helps to slow down your digestion. This helps you to feel full longer and is one reason why fiber may help with weight control.
- 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.
Why is eating dietary fiber important?
If you don’t absorb it,why bother making sure you get enough?
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.
- Helps maintain bowel health. A high-fiber diet may lower your risk of developing hemorrhoids and small pouches in your colon (diverticular disease).
- Stroke: Researchers have found that for every seven-grams more fiber you consume on a daily basis, your stroke risk is decreased by 7 percent.
- 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.
- Skin health: Fiber, particularly psyllium husk, may help move yeast and fungus out of your body, preventing them from being excreted through your skin where they could trigger acne or rashes.
- 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.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Fiber may provide some relief from IBS.
- Gallstones and kidney stones: A high-fiber diet may reduce the risk of gallstones and kidney stones, likely because of its ability to help regulate blood sugar.
- Cancer Prevention. Another benefit attributed to dietary fiber may be prevention of colorectal cancer. However, the evidence that fiber reduces colorectal cancer is mixed.
How much fiber do you need?
How much fiber do you need each day? The Institute of Medicine, which provides science-based advice on matters of medicine and health, gives the following daily recommendations for adults:
|Age 50 or younger||Age 51 or older|
|Men||38 grams||30 grams|
|Women||25 grams||21 grams|
Institute of Medicine, 2012
Assuming your gut is generally healthy, most people benefit from upwards of 32 grams of fiber a day.
If Your Gut Isn’t Healthy, a Temporary Very-Low-Fiber Diet May Help
If you have chronic digestive symptoms like diarrhea, flatulence, stomach pains, reflux, leaky gut syndrome, food allergies, or intolerance, you’d be wise to implement the GAPS program. GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome. It also stands for Gut and Physiology Syndrome. The first part of the GAPS Introduction Diet is to remove fiber because it feeds microbes.
Talk with your medical provider if this a concern for you, so that you can make an informed decision.
Where do I Get Healthy Fiber?
“…the current average fiber intake in the United States is about 13 grams a day for women and 17 for men. Increasing these amounts by seven grams a day would bring them close to the recommended levels of 21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 for men. ‘Seven grams a day increase is an achievable goal…’ ‘You’re talking about… increasing vegetable and fruit by two portions a day.’”
If your diet could use more fiber, resist the urge to fortify it with whole grains. Instead, focus on eating more vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The following whole foods, for example, contain high levels of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Chia seeds Berries Vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts Root vegetables and tubers, including onions and sweet potatoes Almonds Psyllium seed husk, flax, and chia seeds Green beans Cauliflower Beans Peas
If you are struggling to get in all of your daily fiber from food, I recommend Shaklee Fiber Plan or Shaklee Fiber Advantage Bars
This article is for informational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.