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When you think of fiber, do you think of the stuff in bran flakes that you eat to stay regular? While that may be true, fiber is actually so much more.
“Fiber is a workhorse in nutrition because it helps fill you up, can help control your weight, and can reduce your risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease,” said Katy Brown, DO, an endocrinologist at Samaritan Weight Management Institute. “Not only is fiber great for you, but the things fiber comes in – like fruits, vegetables and whole grains – have many additional benefits for your health.”
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate found in plants, but unlike other carbohydrates it does not cause your blood glucose to rise after you eat it. That is because fiber is a portion of the plant that remains undigested. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Most foods with fiber contain a combination of both types.
Insoluble fiber helps to prevent constipation and other bowel problems. It can also help you feel fuller. You can find insoluble fiber in whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Soluble fiber may help lower blood cholesterol and regulate blood glucose. It can also help you feel fuller. You can find soluble fiber in legumes, oats, barley, fruits and vegetables.
Both types of fiber are important and contribute to good health.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Americans consume about 16 grams of fiber a day. However, an in-depth systematic review and meta-analysis of fiber published in the journal The Lancet found that people who ate more fiber had a much lower rate of coronary heart disease, death from stroke, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer, compared to those who ate the least amount of fiber.
“I think the value of fiber has gotten lost in the discussions around carbohydrates and protein, but it is important in terms of overall health and disease prevention,” said Dr. Brown. “Adequate fiber intake is highly correlated to improved health and longevity, and should absolutely be a priority when you think about how you fuel your body.”
After your body extracts the nutrients from fiber-rich foods, the remaining undigested fibers feed your gut microbiome. Getting enough fiber every day also adds bulk and softness to stools so they pass more easily, and helps prevent painful constipation.
According to Dr. Brown, women should aim for at least 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day while men should aim for 30 to 38 grams, but more is better.
“It sounds like a lot at first, but small servings of fiber add up over the course of your day,” said Dr. Brown.
The following sample menu provides plenty of fiber at every meal and snack.
If you’re looking to jump-start your fiber intake, try one of these high fiber foods:
Fiber needs water to keep moving through your system or it could make you constipated or your constipation worse. Be sure to drink at least eight cups of water a day as you add fiber to your diet.
If you need a very high amount of fiber or find it difficult to get enough fiber from your food, a supplement like Metamucil or Citrucel can help. However, Dr. Brown notes that making an effort to get your fiber from whole foods – not supplements or fortified foods – will make the biggest improvement in your overall health.
“When I hear patients tell me they are struggling to get enough fiber it’s often because they are eating a lot of meals out or they feel like they don’t have the time or desire to put together a complete meal at home,” said Dr. Brown. “Fiber-rich sides like vegetables and whole grains are often the first things that are cut when you’re snacking or grabbing something as you run out the door.”
The struggle is real when it comes to finding the time or energy to make a balanced meal, but putting a little effort into what you eat is a good investment.
“Whole foods are more than just a single ingredient like fiber; they contain other vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants that are beneficial for your body,” said Dr. Brown. “A supplement is not a substitute for real food.”
If evaluating your fiber intake is new to you, it may take a little extra effort at first to plan meals and snacks. Start slowly to avoid bloating and gassiness, suggests Dr. Brown. Add one fiber-rich snack or side to your daily intake for a week, the next week add two a day, etc., until you reach your fiber goals.
“Fiber comes packaged inside other foods that are good for you, so as you add healthful foods to your diet, you’ll also be adding more fiber,” said Dr. Brown. “When you can be consistent with a Mediterranean-style diet, getting enough fiber can happen with very little conscious effort on your part.”
Learn how to make healthy meals and other lifestyle changes to support your weight loss journey with Precision Wellness, a 16-week, evidence-based program at Samaritan Weight Management Institute.
Find inspiration and more healthy recipes.
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