Are You Getting Enough Fiber? Here’s Why It Matters
It’s easy to get caught up in the latest wellness trends, products and promises. Advice to eat more fiber may not sound glamorous, but don’t be fooled. Adequate fiber intake can have some pretty stellar health benefits.
We know that fiber has an important place in our diet. It’s talked about in the context of healthy digestion, splashed across the labels of select packaged foods, and is a key component of the highly praised Mediterranean diet—but how much do we really need, and why?
What is fiber, exactly?
Fiber is a carbohydrate that cannot be broken down into sugar molecules. Unlike fat, protein and other carbs, it passes through the body undigested and unabsorbed. Fiber only comes from plant sources, so it’s not found in meat or animal products. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, and both varieties can impact our health in different ways.
Soluble fiber – Dissolves in water, actually soaks up water to form a gel-like structure. It slows digestion allowing better absorption of nutrients. This type of fiber is helpful in regulating blood glucose levels so we avoid those dramatic sugar highs and lows. It can also reduce blood cholesterol levels. As soluble fiber passes through our system, it ferments and feeds the bacteria in our gut promoting better digestion and immune health. This is why most soluble fibers are referred to as pre-biotics.
Insoluble fiber – This type does not dissolve in water. Instead, insoluble fiber adds bulk to digested food, moving it through our intestines. This helps us stay regular and prevents constipation. Doing so, it helps us excrete waste and rid toxins from our body (move over, juice cleanse).
Why all the praise?
In addition to feeding and populating the good bacteria in our gut (a healthy microbiome has multiple health benefits including better immunity) and keeping our bathroom habits in check, fiber gets a high five for the following:
· Disease prevention: fiber helps decrease inflammation, which is at the root of many diseases. Specifically, fiber has been shown to lower the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
· Blood sugar control: since fiber slows the absorption of glucose, it can help regulate blood sugar levels and may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
· Hormone balance: this may not be top of mind when we think of fiber, but it plays a role in balancing hormones by regulating estrogen. Estrogen is excreted in our waste and if we’re not eliminating properly, it can be reabsorbed back into our tissues. Excess estrogen is not something we want, it can cause painful or irregular periods, low sex drive, fatigue, and breast tenderness, among other symptoms. Research shows that a high fiber diet can lower risk of breast cancer.
· Weight management: consider fiber your wing woman for weight loss. Why? Including fibrous foods in our meals can help us stay full for longer periods of time, curbing our appetite to snack and graze less in between meals. In addition to consuming less food (especially starchy carbs/snack foods) this leads to fewer spikes in blood sugar and longer breaks for our digestion—important factors in the big picture of weight maintenance.
Ok, so how much fiber do we need?
Fiber recommendations vary by age and gender due to the difference in caloric need. The Institute of Medicine recommends the following daily intake:
· Women under age 50 = 25 grams
· Women over 50 = 21 grams
· Men under age 50 = 38 grams
· Men over age 50 = 30 grams
Basically, you can estimate 14 g of fiber per 1,000 calories in your diet. Some experts suggest we get more, aiming for 30-40 g per day. Regardless, the sad truth is that most Americans only get 15 grams per day, well below the recommendation. Most people can afford to up their intake.
How to rev up your fiber intake
Before you chug down mixture of powdered fiber and water, try adding high fiber foods to your diet. You can do this by choosing whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Opt for a variety of foods rather than relying on one source.
Plant foods can contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. A few examples of high fiber foods, include:
· Flax seeds
· Chia seeds
· Sweet potatoes
· Psyllium husk
· Most vegetables
· Green beans
· Whole wheat bread
· Most whole grains: brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, whole grain couscous, etc.
Word to the wise
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to fiber! To avoid symptoms like constipation and bloat, increase fibrous foods in your diet slowly and make sure to drink plenty of fluids!