Medical professionals (dietitians included) love to tell people “You need to eat more fiber.” Trouble is, this recommendation tends to conger up images of lumpy fiber supplement beverages and dry, tasteless bran muffins. Not to mention, that when the dreaded “F-word” is brought up, there is rarely an explanation of why a high fiber diet is beneficial, or how you can increase your fiber intake.
So let’s start from the beginning. What is fiber? My grandmother called it roughage, and told me she needed to eat it to “move her bowels” but that’s hardly a definition.
Dietary fiber is found in plant foods and is the portion that our bodies cannot digest. Therefore, it passes through the digestive tract essentially intact. Fiber can further be broken down into two categories. Soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber, as the name implies, dissolves in water. The dissolved fiber forms a gel in the digestive tract and can help regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol. Foods high in soluble fiber include apples, berries, oats, beans, carrots, sweet potatoes and psyillium.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and, therefore, increases stool bulk. Foods high in insoluble fiber include wheat bran, nuts, seeds, and potato skins.
The American Dietetic Association recommends consuming a wide variety of high fiber foods to acheive a goal of 20-35 g per day.
If your current dietary fiber intake is very low, drastically increasing you intake quickly could cause gastrointestinal distress including gas, bloating and cramps.
If you currently are not meeting your recommended fiber intake, there are many ways to increase it. Replace refined grains with whole grains where possible. Try wheat bread instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice, oatmeal instead of low firber cereals. Snack on raw fruits and vegetables between meals and try bean-based recipes. Ensure you drink plenty of water when increasing your fiber intake.
Making dietary changes to include more fiber rich foods is often better than taking fiber supplements because of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other positive nutrients contained in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Eating a high fiber diet has been shown to improve and maintain bowel health and regularity and can reduce your risk of developing hemorrhoids and diverticular disease – the formation of small out-pouchings of the intestinal wall. Research regarding colorectal cancer risk is ongoing and the results have been mixed; however, it is known that eating adequate fiber is associated with good health.
A high fiber diet is also linked with weight loss. Like my grandma said, fiber is roughage. It takes time to chew it, and therefore, longer to eat which can give you time to register satiety. Also, fiber tends to make meals fell larger and more filling.
So don’t think of fiber as the “F-word”. Just think of it as a bonus that comes with eating healthy food.
Teresa M Zwemer, RD holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University in Dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at Wayne State University. She works in both clinical nutrition as well as community nutrition education, focusing on elder nutrition, diabetes prevention, and fitness. Teresa finds joy in helping others to reach their nutritional and fitness goals through education and encouragement. Contact her at TeresaMZwemerRD (at) gmail (dot) com.