Fiber 101

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You have, no doubt, heard that getting enough fiber in your diet is important, but do you know why? Do you know how much you need? Advertisements for fiber supplements would have you believe that it is nearly impossible to get enough fiber without continuously eating throughout the entire day. So is it really that difficult? In a word, no.

Why do we need fiber?
In addition to normalizing bowel movements and aiding in digestive health, dietary fiber also helps to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and to prevent diseases such cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Soluble vs insoluble - what's the difference?
Soluble fiber dissolves in water while insoluble does not. Soluble fiber helps with disease prevention and insoluble fiber acts as a broom for our digestive system. From the Mayo Clinic:

  • 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 and many vegetables are good sources of insoluble fiber.
  • 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.
How much fiber do we need?
First, how much fiber do you need each day? The USDA recommends 14 grams for every 1000 calories consumed or approximately these amounts <table removed>

Where does fiber come from?
Fiber comes from plant-based foods such as fruits, veggies, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Foods that have been highly processed (e.g. white flour, canned fruits and veggies, juices) have less fiber than minimally processed foods. Fiber supplements are available, however what you gain in fiber from those products, you lose in the important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that come from fresh and whole foods. Foods that contain the most fiber include:
  • Lentils
  • Black, pinto, small white, and lima beans
  • Whole grain cereals such as bran flakes or shredded wheat
  • Acorn squash
  • Potatoes with the skin on
  • Broccoli
  • Apples (skin on)
  • Pears (skin on)
  • Berries (especially blackberries and raspberries)
  • Spinach
Here is a great example from the American Institute of Cancer Research of a menu for one day that provides plenty of dietary fiber:

Breakfast: 1⁄2 cup blueberries (2 grams) 1 cup shredded wheat (6g)
Snack: medium banana (3g)
Lunch: 1 – 2 slices whole-wheat bread (2 – 4g) 1 cup lentil soup (6g)
Snack: 1⁄4 cup hummus (4g) 6 whole-grain crackers (3g)
Dinner: 1 cup broccoli (5g) 1⁄2 – 1 cup brown rice (2 – 4g) small tossed salad (1g)
Total Fiber: 34 – 38 g

Tips from the Mayo Clinic for getting more fiber:

  • Jump-start your day. For breakfast choose a high-fiber breakfast cereal — 5 or more grams of fiber a serving. Opt for cereals with "bran" or "fiber" in the name. Or add a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran to your favorite cereal.
  • Switch to whole grains. Look for breads that list whole wheat, whole-wheat flour or another whole grain as the first ingredient on the label. Look for a brand with at least 2 grams of dietary fiber a serving. Experiment with brown rice, wild rice, barley, whole-wheat pasta and bulgur.
  • Bulk up your baked goods. Substitute whole-grain flour for half or all of the white flour when baking. Whole-grain flour is heavier than white flour. In yeast breads, use a bit more yeast or let the dough rise longer. When using baking powder, increase it by 1 teaspoon for every 3 cups of whole-grain flour. Try adding crushed bran cereal or unprocessed wheat bran to muffins, cakes and cookies.
  • Mix it up. Add pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables to soups and sauces. For example, mix chopped frozen broccoli into prepared spaghetti sauce or toss fresh baby carrots into stews.
  • Get a leg up with legumes. Eat more beans, peas and lentils. 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 fruit at every meal. Apples, bananas, oranges, pears and berries are good sources of fiber.
  • Make snacks count. Fresh and dried fruit, raw vegetables, and low-fat popcorn and whole-grain crackers are all good choices. An occasional handful of nuts is also a healthy, high-fiber snack.
Note: It is important to increase the amount of fiber in your diet gradually:

High-fiber foods are good for your health. But adding too much fiber too quickly can promote intestinal gas, abdominal bloating and cramping. Increase fiber in your diet gradually over a period of a few weeks. This allows the natural bacteria in your digestive system to adjust to the change. Also, drink plenty of water. Fiber works best when it absorbs water, making your stool soft and bulky.

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