From whole grain wheat and oats to beans and lentils–packing your diet with fiber-rich foods is a very good thing. A body of science points to a number of health benefits derived from consuming dietary fiber, a non-digestible form of carbohydrates that occurs naturally in plant foods.
“Fiber’s benefit package includes the maintenance of a healthy digestive tract, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and healthy weight,” says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, Ph.D., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While you probably know fiber is important for digestive health, you may not realize that it has an important role in weight management, too. Fiber-rich foods take longer to chew, increasing your volume of saliva and gastric juices, expanding your stomach, and delaying the amount of time it takes to digest food. The end result is that you feel fuller, longer.
Falling Short of Fiber
Since fiber consumption is particularly related to reducing a number of chronic diseases that plague us, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity–the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends that all Americans prioritize eating more fiber.
The Adequate Intake level for fiber is established at 14 grams (g) per 1,000 calories–that’s 25 g per day for the average woman and 38 g per day for the average man. Sadly, only five percent of Americans are meeting this goal; the average intake in the U.S. is only 15 g per day.
Why are we woefully short on a nutrient that is so beneficial? It’s simple–we’re not eating enough of the whole plant foods that contribute fiber to our diets.
“Our richest sources of fiber are fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, and most people are not eating enough of these types of foods,” says Gazzaniga-Moloo. “Most usually don’t think of adding legumes to salads or other dishes, or grabbing a piece of fruit or some nuts for a snack. Often the bottle of juice is more readily available than the piece of fruit. We often forget that fruits, veggies, and nuts are perfect travel foods and, instead, reach for the bag of chips.”
Fiber comes in many forms, but they are all advantageous. Try to get a variety to help you meet your daily goal; they offer a wide range of benefits.
1. Soluble fiber, which is linked with lowering cholesterol levels, is found in foods such as legumes, oats, barley, nuts, and some fruits and vegetables.
2. Insoluble fiber, found in whole grains, wheat bran, nuts, seeds, and some vegetables and fruits, acts like a sponge, passing through the intestines mostly unchanged, thus helping to promote good motility.
3. Non-digestible oligosaccharides, found in some fruits, vegetables, seeds and grains aren’t digested in the intestine, so they feed healthy bacteria in the gut.
4. Resistant starches, found in bananas and potatoes, also may help to increase energy expenditure and lower glucose levels.
5. Inulin, found in artichokes and onions, is often added to foods as a functional ingredient. It stimulates the growth of friendly gut bacteria.
Meet your fiber goals. In order to gain the health bonus of fiber, it’s important to include plenty of plant foods in their whole, natural form. However, some, such as beans and lentils, are fiber super-stars–offering up to 8 grams per serving–while others, such as iceberg lettuce, may offer only one to two grams. Though small amounts of fiber add up, it’s important to include a few high-fiber foods in your diet every day in order to meet your fiber goals.
Top Tips for Pushing Fiber
1. Choose a high-fiber breakfast. This may be the best opportunity to get a good deal of the fiber for the day, if you choose fiber-rich whole grain cereals, breads and fruit. Sprinkle nuts, fruit and flaxseed onto your cereal, yogurt, toast, or pancakes to further enrich your fiber intake.
2. Make the switch to whole grains: You can make a serious push in your fiber levels if you move from refined breads, crackers, snacks, pasta and side dishes made of white flour to whole grain versions of these foods. “Check the food label and spot fiber-rich ingredients on the ingredient list; look for whole grain or whole wheat flour,” said Gazzaninga-Moloo.
3. Give brown rice a try. Skip the refined white rice in lieu of brown rice, available plain or as a side-dish mix.
4. Eat the fruit instead of drinking the juice. Fruit juice is squeezed from its fiber-rich package, robbing you of precious grams of fiber.
5. Reach for nuts, seeds and dried fruit for snacks. Instead of sugary treats or bags of chips at snack time, a handful of almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, or figs can pump up the fiber grams in your diet.
6. Put legumes on the menu several times a week. Beans, lentils and dried peas add important grams of fiber, and also flavor and texture to your diet. Sprinkle them on salads, serve as a side dish, stir into soups and stews, or feature them as a main dish.
7. Eat a fruit or veggie with each meal or snack. Don’t let a single meal or snack go by without taking the opportunity to include fruits and vegetables, such as soup, salad, cooked or fresh vegetables, and fruit – whether canned, dried, frozen or fresh.
– Sharon Palmer R.D.
As a registered dietitian with 16 years of health care experience, she focuses on writing features covering health, wellness, nutrition, cooking, wine, restaurant reviews, and entertainment. Over 750 of Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications. Her recent book The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today can be ordered here.