Since March is National Nutrition Month, I thought it would be a good opportunity to remind you all of something we commonly don't get enough of in our daily nutrition: FIBER.
Dietary fiber is found in plant foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, seeds and nuts. Unlike other food components like fats, carbohydrates and proteins, since our bodies cannot digest or break down fiber—here's the good news—it has practically no calories.
How is that possible, you ask? Instead of being absorbed, fiber makes its journey, relatively intact, through your stomach, small intestine, colon and then out of your body.
Current recommendations call for us to get at least 25 grams of fiber per day. That's the amount found in five servings of either fruits or vegetables and one or two servings of either whole grains or beans. But the average American falls woefully short of this goal, consuming an average of just 14 grams of fiber daily.
It's easy to figure out the reasons: overreliance on processed foods, lack of availability of fresh produce, convenience and taste preferences for sweet/salty junk foods (how likely is it to see a vending machine with fresh fruit inside as opposed to bags of chips or pretzels?).
So, what's all this fuss about fiber? Well, for one thing, it can help get foods moving through your body more efficiently. And we all know that the opposite of that—constipation—is something that can make you pretty cranky and uncomfortable.
It also has other healthy benefits, among them:
- Helps you feel full
- Helps with weight loss
- May help lower your cholesterol
- May reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers
- Helps prevent hemorrhoids
- Helps in the treatment of diverticulitis (inflammation of pouches in the digestive tract)
- Helps with irritable bowel syndrome
If you, as a relatively healthy person, had to pick a favorite reason to eat fiber from the ones listed above, my instincts tell me the overwhelming majority of you would choose the second one: that fiber helps with weight loss.
And it does! Research shows that people who eat 35 to 45 grams of fiber per day feel more satisfied during weight loss. Not only that, but they lose more weight than people who eat less than that.
High-fiber foods can be added to a meal containing other foods that you want to eat, so you can eat things that would otherwise work against weight loss, says Susan Roberts, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and author of The Instinct Diet.
In her book, Roberts lists foods that you can eat to get 8 to 10 grams of dietary fiber with each meal and 4 to 5 grams with each snack. For instance, you can mix cereals into your yogurt or top your salads with them. You can even make a bread that is not only yummy, but is loaded with fiber. Click here for the recipe.
Some other fiber-packed sources:
- 1/4 cup General Mills Fiber One cereal
- 1/4 cup Kellogg's All-Bran Extra Fiber cereal
- 1/3 cup cooked pinto or other beans
- 2/3 cup raspberries or blackberries
- 6 dried black mission figs
- 1 large apple
To get fiber's full benefits and prevent constipation, make sure to drink six to eight glasses of water daily when you eat more fiber. (Huh? Isn't fiber supposed to ease constipation? Well, yes, but it needs water to work correctly in the intestines. And surprisingly, it's fiber's water-holding property that is part of why it makes you feel more satisfied, Roberts says.)
Confused about the terms "soluble" and "insoluble," associated with fiber? Here's an easy primer from the Mayo Clinic:
- Soluble fiber. It dissolves in water and forms a gel-like material. It may help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in foods such as oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium.
- Insoluble fiber. This type helps material move through your digestive system and increases stool bulk. It can help you if you have constipation or irregular stools. Sources of insoluble fiber include whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans and vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans and potatoes. Note: There are also "synthetic" fibers. Unlike dietary fibers, these are not found in foods, but are added by manufacturers to foods in the form of guar gum and inulin. There are also fiber supplements, like Metamucil or Citrucel. They may help ease constipation, but they don't provide the variety of fibers, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients that foods can. If you've made the decision to up your fiber consumption, it's best to take it slowly: adding too much too quickly can result in intestinal gas, abdominal bloating and cramping. Best to increase your consumption gradually, over a few weeks, to allow your digestive system's natural bacteria to adjust.