Fiber may sound as boring as a bran muffin or Metamucil supplement. But if you’re looking for optimal health and nutrition, fiber may be the unsung hero of our diets. It offers protective armor against disease, keeps the gut and bowels running smoothly, and can even help keep you trim.
Adding fiber to your diet can significantly reduce your chances of having heart disease, a stroke, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes, numerous studies have shown. Overall, eating more fiber offers a decreased risk of death from any cause.
Fiber is a kind of carbohydrate that comes from the parts of plants your body can’t absorb. Unlike most carbohydrates, however, fiber is not broken down into sugar molecules. Instead, it passes undigested through the body to become food for bacteria.
Also known as bulk or roughage, fiber helps regulate how your body uses sugars, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic. It helps slow down glucose absorption to even out blood sugar levels, and may also reduce cholesterol and inflammation.
Knowing the types of fiber can help you understand how they benefit your body. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and can lower glucose and cholesterol levels. The best sources are found in beans, nuts, oats, and some fruits and veggies. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water. It adds bulk to your stools and helps food pass through your digestive system, warding off constipation and aiding regularity. Foods with insoluble fiber include whole wheat bread, brown rice, carrots, kidney beans, and bran.
Fiber also plays a role in nourishing bacteria in our intestines, vital activity for the body that is not fully understood yet. Fiber appears to feed the gut bacteria that make chemical messengers used to regulate blood sugar and appetite.
A lack of fiber seems to negatively impact the diversity of our gut bacteria. When you eat many kinds of fiber you have a healthier population of bacteria, which leads to better health.
The best results come when people eat whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Apples, pear, and prunes are good choices, as well as broccoli, avocados, and sweet potatoes.
Fiber supplements and processed foods with added fiber may sound worthwhile, but they don’t have the vitamins and minerals of whole foods. And just because processed foods have added fiber, that doesn’t mean they are nutritious.
When you pack in fiber, you also tend to feel full longer after a meal. Choosing high-fiber foods can help you eat less, so weight control is another potential benefit of high-fiber diets. Unfortunately, most people don’t get anywhere near enough fiber to get those benefits.
Nutritionists recommend a daily intake of 25 to 30 grams. Men under 50 need even more, or around 38 grams. But many Americans consume just 15 grams or less of fiber per day, about half the recommended amount. That’s partly a result of eating too much fast food and highly processed meals, which tend to be low in fiber. Another problem is the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets like the ketogenic diet or the Atkins diet, which tend to decrease fiber consumption.
If you are missing out on fiber, try adding a variety of whole foods to meals. Sprinkle nuts, berries, and seeds on salads and cereal, and eat potatoes with the skins on. Use whole-grain bread and brown or wild rice. Experiment with barley, whole-wheat pasta, and bulgur wheat.
It’s a good idea to drink plenty of water when adding roughage. Fiber absorbs water, so you’ll need more beverages when you increase your intake. And go slowly to give your stomach time to adapt to the changes.