When you think “fiber,” chances are you also think “bowel movement.” But fiber, the indigestible part of plant-based foods, does so much more than keep us regular. Fiber fights the “big five”—heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity—says James Anderson, MD, chair of the National Fiber Council. Fiber lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar, prevents gastrointestinal issues, and protects against cancer.
What is fiber?
Fiber comes in three forms: soluble fiber, which dissolves in water and is found in oats, barley, beans, brussels sprouts, pears, apples, and the flesh of many other fruits and vegetables); insoluble fiber, which is not dissolvable in water and is found in foods like whole grains, wheat bran, root vegetables, and the skin of many fruits and vegetables; and resistant starch, an indigestible form of starch found in unripe bananas, whole grains, and cereal, that functions similarly to other fiber types. Don’t worry about how much of each kind you get, say experts. Focus instead on increasing your overall fiber intake with a wide variety of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
While the average person knows fiber is important to health, most of us don’t get enough of it. In fact, even though fiber ranked first among foods recognized by consumers as health promoting, according to a 2009 survey by the International Food Information Council, the average person only gets about half of the recommended daily amount of fiber (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men). People are busy and don’t take the time to prepare high-fiber meals, says Anderson, and they’ve also been misinformed about carbohydrates, he says, which can be an excellent source of fiber. That said, you do have to consume a relatively large volume of food to meet your fiber needs. So, what’s the trick to getting enough? Here are three easy-to-implement tips to get you on track.
Put fruits and vegetables first to reverse ratios
In the United States, grain products are the number-one source of fiber, followed by less-utilized vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits. If you’re making pasta with vegetables, start with the vegetables you have on hand, then add the pasta, says Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Try 1 cup vegetables to ½ cup pasta. A bonus: The higher the vegetable-to-pasta ratio, the lower the calories, says Rolls. If a healthy dose of produce doesn’t figure into a recipe, consider eating fruits and/or vegetables at the start of your meal so that you don’t fill up before you get to them.
Make smart fiber choices for every meal
A recent study found that people consumed most of their fiber at dinner, followed by lunch. Start your day off right with a bowl of high-fiber breakfast cereal topped with fruit for an extra 1–2 grams, plus nuts for a bigger boost, advises Megan McCrory, PhD, assistant professor, foods and nutrition, at Purdue University. (Check out this list of fiber-rich foods)
Analyze fiber intake and increase accordingly
People are usually shocked at how low their fiber intake is, says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota recommends tallying your fiber intake, and, if your math finds your consumption on the low side, start slow. “Aiming for the recommended amount right away may feel unmanageable,” says Slavin. Instead, shoot for at least 10 extra grams a day. That works out to about one serving of fiber-rich food, such as 1/2 cup fruit, 1/2 cup vegetable, or 1/4 cup beans. For dinner or lunch, swap out a serving of protein-rich foods that are low in fiber—such as chicken, beef, or fish—for a serving of beans, says Slavin.
No matter how regimented your diet, it’s hard to get enough fiber because even fiber-rich foods generally only supply a few grams. But don’t use supplements and added fibers as your primary source of fiber. New “designer” fibers added to bread, yogurt, and bars—such as inulin, polydextrose, and soluble corn fiber—can help boost your fiber total but may not have all of the health benefits of fiber found in whole foods. Here are several preferable sources.
What it is: A soluble fiber that comes from the husks and seeds of the plant Plantago ovata and found in products such as Metamucil, psyllium has the most potent effect of fiber supplements, according to Anderson. It promotes laxation, lowers cholesterol, and helps you manage your weight and avoid diabetes.
How to take: Start slowly, says Sari Greaves, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, with no more than 3 grams of psyllium a day (a tablespoon of Metamucil has 2.4 grams of psyllium). Be sure to drink more water as you increase your fiber intake, advises Greaves.
Cautions: Psyllium interferes with some medications (check with your doctor) and can cause bloating at higher doses.
What it is: Derived from chicory root, inulin is commonly found in packaged bread, yogurt, energy bars, and even low-fat ice cream. It is a prebiotic that is believed to alter the gut microflora and enhance immune function. (Prebiotics stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria.) Inulin may not protect against heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure, says Anderson.
How to take: Eat foods with added inulin in moderation, being careful not to overdo high-calorie inulin-enhanced foods like ice cream in lieu of healthier fiber-rich options such as bran cereal, says Greaves.
Cautions: Too much inulin can cause gas and other gastrointestinal problems.
What it is: Oat bran is the outer layer of the oat kernel. Oat bran contains the most concentrated source of the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as prevent diabetes and obesity.
How to take: Shoot for 3 grams of beta-glucan a day if you have high cholesterol, says Greaves. Start with regular oat products (1/2 cup dry old-fashioned oats contains 2 grams) and stir in 2 tablespoons oat bran for extra beta-glucan, says Greaves. Also add oat bran to muffins, breads, and pancakes.