Fiber. Its not sexy and it’s utterly unglamorous, and its association to bowel movements ensures that its never water cooler-conversation material.
As a dietitian, I can wax poetic about the virtues of fiber and why you should be getting more in your diet to look and feel your best.
You see fiber listed on packages of foods, but what is it? Fiber is the parts of plants that provide their structure or ability to grow through soil and stand up. Fiber is also so tough that your GI tract can’t fully digest is, so it travels through the body fairly intact.
Most people use the terms soluble or insoluble to identify fiber types. Soluble dissolves in water while insoluble doesn’t. In the body, these types of fibers are thought to confer different health properties. Soluble fiber is more commonly found in fruits and beans and oats. It helps lower cholesterol and has an approved heart-health claim from the Food and Drug Administration. Insoluble fiber is found in some vegetables and wheat-based foods. The foods richest in dietary fiber include vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes and whole grains. Products rich in functional fibers may be cereals with added fiber, dietary supplements and some laxatives.
How Much is Enough?
The new dietary guidelines recommend 14 grams fiber per 1,000 calories. For most women, we need about 25-30 grams of fiber daily but most of us are getting about 14 grams a day or half of what we need.
Fiber and Your Health
When it comes to fiber, what exactly are the health benefits you can expect from eating your roughage.
Improved Digestive Health: Constipation is thought to affect up to 20% of seniors and 10% of children. Over 100 studies have shown that fiber increases stool bulk, which should help speed transit time in the gut. Many studies consistently show that fiber may help improve gut function, but other studies have not shown that increasing stool bulk will automatically make everyone regular.
Weight Control: Several studies have shown that those who consume higher fiber diets weigh less than those who eat diets low in fiber. In addition, Tufts University researchers found that by adding 14 g/d fiber to the diet, the resulting weight loss was nearly 5 pounds in four months.
Heart Disease: A diet low in fat, and saturated fat that is rich in soluble fiber can help reduce cholesterol levels decrease the risk of heart disease. Some studies have found that those who eat fiber-rich diets suffer fewer heart attacks. The FDA found sufficient scientific agreement to allow a health claim on foods that contain soluble fiber in sufficient quantities.
Cancer: Fiber may also help reduce the risk of certain cancers, including colorectal cancer. Some studies have found a link between a high-fiber diet and reduced risk for breast cancer, but further research is needed.
Blood Sugar Control: Studies also show that fibers also help reduce the blood sugar response of carbohydrate-containing foods by slowing down the digestion. This, in turn, can help reduce your risk for developing insulin-resistance and type 2 diabetes.
–Julie Upton, MS, RD