For far too long, dietary fiber has been associated primarily with “roughage” and bowel regularity. But while foods high in fiber certainly contribute to healthy bowels, they also offer numerous other health benefits, including maintaining a healthy weight and lowering your risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Soluble fiber, found in oats, beans, barley, nuts and certain fruits and vegetables, has been found to lower LDL and total cholesterol. One study found a seven percent reduced risk of stroke for every seven additional grams of fiber consumed a day.
Insoluble fiber is never completely broken down and travels through the body unchanged, making waste that is excreted heavier and softer, reducing substantially the risk of bowel problems.
How much fiber do you get in your daily diet? Women need at least 25 grams a day; men, 35 to 40 grams. The average daily intake for Americans is only 15 grams.
“Oh, I eat a bowl of oatmeal every morning,” you say, “I get enough fiber.” Think again. While oatmeal is high in soluble fiber, a full bowl contains four grams – about one tenth of an adult male’s daily requirement.
Many of the foods that have a major place in the typical diet – meat, fish, chicken, dairy products and the sugars found in soft drinks and baked goods – have no fiber. Others such as white bread, white rice, pasta and juices have very little.
Fiber is found in whole grain products, including cereal and bread; fruits; vegetables; beans, peas and other legumes; nuts; and seeds. But these same foods, when they are refined or processed – as in canned fruits and vegetables, pulp-free juices, white bread, pasta and most ready-to-eat cereals – generally have most of the fiber removed.
If you try to get your daily fiber by searching labels for the term “added fiber,” you are not getting the full benefit of eating a high-fiber diet. And fiber supplements such as Metamucil, Citrucel and FiberCon – also lack the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that make fiber-rich foods so beneficial to health.
The answer is to eat fresh, whole foods – fruits, vegetables and whole grains – at nearly every meal and even for mid-meal snacks, whenever possible.
Some of the best foods in terms of fiber include: black beans – 15 grams per cup, cooked; chick peas – 12.5 grams per cup, cooked; broccoli – 5.1 grams per cup, boiled; carrots – 5.0 grams per cup, cooked; raspberries – 8.0 grams per cup, raw; and avocados – 6.7 grams per half, raw.
If you add half a cup of raspberries to your bowl of oatmeal, you have doubled your intake and now have 8.0 grams.
But if you’re counting on whole grain bread at lunch to add to your total, you are still moving slowly. Even 100 percent whole grain bread has only three grams of fiber per slice. Make a sandwich with deli meat or cheese, and your grand total (including the oatmeal and raspberries for breakfast) is a mere 14.0.
Most bread, of course, is not 100 percent whole grain. Whole grain flour does not rise as well so even health-minded bakers usually add at least some refined flour. Don’t be fooled by terms. Multi-grain merely means that many grains are used; none need be whole.
If you want to add substantial quantities of fiber at lunch, you are going to have to include fruits, vegetables and/or beans. How about black bean dip on whole wheat bread? Or a salad sandwich – lettuce, cucumber, avocado, celery.
An evening meal focused on meat, potatoes and gravy is pitifully low in fiber. The potatoes add three grams per serving, maybe a bit more if you eat the skins. Sweet potatoes are lower in calories but offer four grams of fiber plus substantially more vitamin A and C than white potatoes.
The ideal is to have plenty of high-fiber plant foods – carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spinach. At three to four grams a serving, two servings of vegetables will get you close to your goal.
One cup of beans, peas or lentils (15 to 16 grams) may double your daily fiber intake and put you over the goal. Try a black bean and sweet potato chili with chipotle peppers.
For snacks, concentrate on fresh fruits, raw vegetables and nuts. All are high in nutrition as well as fiber. Only 10 almonds will give you 4.0 grams of fiber and an abundance of heart healthy nutrients.
If you are already eating a healthy, balanced diet, you probably have no trouble reaching your daily goal for fiber. And if you’re getting enough fiber, you should be getting plenty of pleasure from foods that are rich in texture and flavor.
This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your healthcare provider.