April 23, 2008

Fiber: Start Roughing It!

By Elizabeth Ledoux, Dietetic Intern, Bay Pines Health Care System
Pinellas County Extension, Family & Consumers

whole grain foodFiber is one of those nutrients that we know is important but remains a mystery to us. So…what is fiber? What are the best sources? What are its health benefits? This article will answer these and other questions associated with fiber.

The term dietary fiber refers to carbohydrates that are not digested. Fiber is found in all plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Not all fiber is the same. Soluble fiber dissolves in water forming a gel-like substance. Sources include: oats, legumes, apples, berries, nuts, and seeds. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. It plays an important role in increasing the movement of material through your digestive tract and bulking up your stool. Sources include: whole grains, bran, seeds, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. These differences are important as it relates to fiber’s role in health benefits. Fiber reduces the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes and is involved in bowel disorders and weight control.

Fiber and Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. High intake of dietary fiber has been linked to lowering the risk of heart disease. A Harvard study of male health professionals found that a high total dietary fiber (particularly cereal fiber) intake was linked to a 40% lower risk of coronary heart disease. A related study of female nurses produced similar findings. Furthermore, a strong predictor of heart disease is abnormal blood cholesterol lab values. It appears that soluble fiber reduces the absorption of cholesterol in your intestines by binding with bile, a substance produced in the liver. Your body then gets rid of it.

Fiber and Type 2 Diabetes
A high-fiber diet can be beneficial in getting your blood sugars under control. Keeping blood sugars stable is a goal everyone would benefit from. If you do have type 2 diabetes, this could be the way to keep it under control. If you don't have it, this could be the way to prevent it. Research has shown that high-fiber diets can aid in prevention. A recent study showed reductions in blood sugar values with the use of a high fiber supplement in overweight and obese individuals without diabetes. Soluble fiber has been found to produce significant reductions in blood sugar. For those with diabetes, increasing your fiber now can prevent long-term complications from diabetes and can decrease insulin requirements.

Fiber and Bowel Disorders
With the introduction of white flour came an increased prevalence of bowel disorders such as diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Studies have shown that a high-fiber diet helps to prevent diverticulosis, a condition that occurs when small pouches (diverticula) push outward through weak spots in the colon. A diet high in fiber will decrease the risk of complications if you have it. The same has been found for IBS and current treatment guidelines for IBS include following a high fiber diet. The bulk that fiber provides is thought to help prevent the pain often associated with IBS and aids in regularity.

Fiber and Weight Control
There is some evidence that "bulking up" could lead to slimming down. One of the reasons that fiber may have an impact on body weight is its ability to slow the movement of food through the intestines. This increase in time that foods stay in the intestines has been shown to reduce hunger feelings and overall food intake.

fresh fruits & vegetablesFiber is an important part of a healthy diet, and you should consume the recommended amount of 21-38 grams of dietary fiber per day. Most of us eat only 15 grams of dietary fiber a day. The best sources are fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, and whole-grain foods. Here are some tips to help you increase your fiber intake:

  • Eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices.
  • Replace white rice, bread, and pasta with brown rice and whole-grain products.
  • Choose whole-grain cereals. Check out for more information on whole grains.
  • Snack on raw vegetables instead of chips or crackers.
  • Substitute legumes (beans and peas) for meat two to three times per week.
  • Experiment with recipes that use whole grains and legumes.

Find out the fiber content of your favorite foods at:

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