Fiber, fiber, fiber. You’ve heard about it so much that by now you’d think we’d all be eating enough. Well,
if not enough, almost enough, you say? Not so. Just five percent of us are getting enough fiber every day. Despite the shortfall—and perhaps even more shocking—67 percent of us actually think we’re getting what we need!
Why the disconnect?
First of all, some people don’t know which foods are good sources of fiber, says Diane Quagliani, RDN, LDN, and co-author of a research paper titled “Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap.” Or they don’t know that fiber is so healthful. And then, if they do, there’s the desirability factor to overcome: People think that a food with fiber doesn’t taste good—that it’s “just sawdust-tasting cereal,” says Quagliani.
The rise in popularity of certain diets, such as gluten free and Paleo, has also limited the consumption of plant foods that provide a lot of fiber. And finally, says Quagliani, “It’s human nature to overestimate the good things we’re doing. People might think, ‘I ate some whole wheat bread today, so surely I must have gotten enough fiber.’”
Thankfully, we’re moving in the right direction. In a recent survey, 62 percent of people said they’re trying to take in more fiber—and with good reason.
What exactly is fiber? It’s a special kind of carb found in plant foods. Typically, your body absorbs the carbs (and other nutrients) in foods. But your body can’t digest fiber, so about half of it passes through your digestive system relatively intact, while the rest is fermented by bacteria in your colon, which break it down into short-chain fatty acids.
Surprisingly high-fiber foods
- Artichoke: 1/2 cup = 7.2 g fiber
- Pear: 1 medium = 5.5 g fiber
- Avocado: 1/2 cup = 5 g fiber
- Refried beans: 1/2 cup = 4.4 g fiber
- Raspberries: 1/2 cup = 4 g fiber
- Blackberries: 1/2 cup = 3.8 g fiber
- Popcorn (air popped): 3 cups = 3.5 g fiber
The benefits, please …
Most people still name digestive health as fiber’s number-one benefit—and fiber is important for regularity, says Quagliani, especially since constipation affects about 20 percent of the population.
But that’s just the tip of the benefits iceberg. This humble nutrient is an actual lifesaver. In a 2019 meta-analysis commissioned by the World Health Organization, researchers found that in people who consumed the most fiber, there was a decrease in:
- all-cause and cardiovascular-related death
- type 2 diabetes
- colorectal cancer
- blood pressure
- body weight
- total cholesterol
As if this isn’t enough, researchers keep adding to the list of fiber’s potential benefits—think inflammation reduction, increased immunity, and even better brain health (aka improved mood, alertness, and cognition).
How much is enough, and how do we get it?
The Institute of Medicine recommendation for adults 50 years and younger is 25 g of fiber a day for women and 38 g for men. For those over 50, it drops to 21 g a day for women and 30 g for men.
Is it difficult to get this much? No, says Quagliani; it just requires a shift in mindset. “Make an effort to get fiber in every meal,” she says. “And look at your snacks—we all love to snack, and that’s a great opportunity.” Focus on beans and other legumes, high-fiber cereals, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Keep the skins on potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, and pears. And pay attention. With our on-the-go lifestyles, “it’s all about making it a priority to plan for, purchase, and prepare the foods that will give you all the fiber you need—and then eat them!” says Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN.
You’ve probably heard that there are two types of fiber: soluble fiber—which dissolves in water to form a gel—and insoluble fiber, which does not form a gel and sweeps through the colon intact. They each have distinct health benefits. For example, soluble fibers that are readily fermented in the colon are prebiotics (meaning they “feed” microorganisms in your gut and create beneficial changes in your body).
Although you’ve got to consume both soluble and insoluble fiber, don’t fret about how much of each you should be eating. The new thinking is to simply increase overall fiber intake. By doing that, you will naturally get enough of each fiber type.
Remember: Despite fiber’s not-so-glamorous reputation, high-fiber foods are some of the most delicious on the planet. So dig in!
Choosing a fiber supplement
Prioritizing whole-food sources of fiber is vital, but fiber supplements can help fill in the gaps when you’re deficient. Match your intended use with the right product.
According to studies, for cholesterol lowering and improved glycemic control, choose gel-forming fibers like psyllium or beta-glucan.
To soften and bulk up your stool for a laxative effect, opt for wheat bran or psyllium (wheat dextrin can be constipating).
Prebiotic fibers for supporting the gut microbiome include inulin and fructooligosaccharides (naturally found in foods like asparagus, garlic, bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes).