Fiber gets an awful lot of attention—and when you examine the facts, it’s clear to see why it’s a healthy diet essential. An indigestible substance found in all plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fiber (or roughage) can be thought of as your body’s broom. It sweeps through your intestines to pick up unhealthy bacteria and excess waste, keeping your digestive system running smoothly in the process. And although regularity is a well-known benefit of a fiber-rich diet, there are also many others, with decreased cancer risk, improved cholesterol levels and weight management at the top of the list.
The Benefits of Fiber
All dietary fibers fall into one of two categories, each of which brings its own set of benefits. Both should be eaten daily as part of a balanced diet.
Insoluble fiber does not break down during the digestive process, meaning that it tends to pass through your body both quickly and relatively intact. By adding bulk to stool, it makes it easier to pass, helping to prevent constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome. And because insoluble fiber stays in your body for a short amount of time, your exposure to potentially harmful substances in food waste is also decreased. This may lessen the risk of some forms of cancer.
Good sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel, which slows the absorption of sugar and fats in the blood, helping to maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It also works to maintain your body’s feeling of satiety, or fullness, for longer periods—a reason why foods rich in soluble fiber are often recommended for weight management. Soluble fiber is also what provides food for the healthy probiotic bacteria—often called "prebiotics."
Good sources of soluble fiber are easy to identify because they have a soft, gummy quality to them—think citrus fruits, legumes and beans. Various brans such as oat, barley, corn and rice are also rich in soluble fiber. Leeks, asparagus, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, wheat, oats and soybeans are particularly good sources of prebiotic fiber.
Meeting Your Fiber Needs
On average, Americans consume 15 g or less of dietary fiber per day—far less than the recommended daily amounts. According to The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, the current recommended daily intake levels are 38 g of fiber for men and 25 g for women under the age of 50. For those over 50, the recommendations are 30 g for men and 21 g for women.
Increasing Your Fiber Intake
There are plenty of ways to increase your fiber intake, from making simple swaps to trying new foods. Take a look at the tips below to get some ideas on how to incorporate more fiber-rich foods into your diet.
- At breakfast, try a high-fiber cereal, or mixing one in with your favorite brand.
- Select whole fresh or frozen fruits over juice or canned fruits.
- Don’t remove the peel on apples, pears, peaches or potatoes—just be sure to wash them well before eating.
- Choose breads, crackers, pasta and cereals that list whole grains as the first ingredient.
- Use whole wheat flour instead of white when cooking or baking.
- Substitute brown rice for white rice.
- Give a new whole grain—such as barley or bulgur wheat—a try as a side dish. Seeds (yes, that’s what they are!) like quinoa or wild rice are also great choices.
- Swap in well-rinsed, canned beans for meat when preparing recipes.
Please keep in mind that you may experience certain side effects, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea and gas, when adding more fiber to your diet. You can minimize these effects by increasing your fiber intake slowly over days or weeks, which will give your digestive system time to adjust. Increasing your fluid intake can also help to minimize these symptoms, so always drink plenty of water. Be sure to avoid consuming dry fiber, such as bran or high fiber cereal without adequate fluid.