The health benefits of fiber are many and include blood sugar control, weight management, constipation relief, and improving heart health by reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
But experts say many people don’t understand what the best sources of fiber are or how much to get in a day. “Increasing food intake should be the number one strategy when it comes to fiber as foods high in fiber provide key sources of antioxidant nutrients and natural plant compounds that contribute to an anti-inflammatory and cancer protective diet,” explains Karen Collins, MS, a registered dietitian and nutritional consultant at the American Institute for Cancer Research.
She says it’s important to “aim to include high-fiber foods in every meal, every day,” and she, along with other experts, offers several tips for doing so.
What exactly does fiber do?
One of the reasons dietary fiber is so important to a balanced diet is due to its role in energy regulation. Excessive energy intake has been linked to obesity and other health problems and is a major nutritional challenge for many. Compared to other carbohydrates, fiber is unique because it has a low energy density which contrasts with other foods and plays a key role in managing appetite and feelings of satiety or fullness.
Research in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism shows that fiber also contributes to energy balance by aiding in metabolizable energy content and reducing blood sugar spikes that usually lead to an energy crash a short time later.
In other words, while fiber doesn’t provide energy in the same way that some carbohydrates do, it does help with energy regulation and is especially important to include in the foods you eat to start your day.
What foods are high in fiber?
In fact, breakfast foods are some of the best sources of fiber. Oatmeal with a side of berries, multigrain avocado toast, and lots of grains are a great way to get fiber into your morning.
Collins says other key sources of fiber include whole plant foods such as “whole grains, vegetables and fruits,” as well as brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, crusty bread crackers and pita bread. “Legumes also provide dietary fiber,” he says. “This is a family that includes soy foods, dried peas, and lentils.” He particularly recommends beans, cooked from dried form or as a time-saving canned option. “Eating so little from this food group is a big contributor to Americans’ low fiber intake, so adding them to more dishes is a strategy I highly recommend.”
Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, recommends many of the same sources of fiber that Collins does and says such foods “help keep the contents of the gastrointestinal system, support the maintenance of a healthy gut microbiota and have a modest beneficial effect on blood glucose and cholesterol levels”.
Additionally, Collins says fiber can be incorporated into snacks in addition to meals. “Nuts and seeds provide fiber and heart-healthy types of fats,” she says, “so enjoy a handful added to cereal, yogurt, cooked cereal, vegetables, or on their own as a snack.”
How can I increase my fiber in my diet?
Getting plenty of fiber in your diet is essential. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults eat 22 to 34 grams of fiber per day, though the specific amount depends on age and gender. For those wondering what 22 to 34 grams of fiber looks like, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the amount “would be like eating about six apples a day.” Josh Redd, NMD, the founder of RedRiver Health and Wellness and author of “The Truth About Low Thyroid,” says another way to think about getting enough fiber is to break it down into individual servings and get between 8 and 13 of those servings per day. . “A serving is roughly a half cup of chopped produce or a cup of leafy greens,” he says.
And if one isn’t used to eating that much fiber, “increase the amount you eat each day for a couple of weeks so your digestion and gut microbiome can adjust,” advises Redd. “Otherwise, you may experience digestive discomfort and bloating.” He says it’s also important to note that some people have conditions that make it difficult to tolerate a lot of fiber. “In these cases, we recommend supplementation with short-chain fatty acids like butyrate,” he says.
Experts also recommend natural sources of fiber over supplementation. “It’s best to get fiber from dietary sources and not from a fiber supplement,” advises Lichtenstein. Collins agrees that “fiber from supplements is no substitute for a high-fiber diet,” but says fiber-fortified foods are a great way to get extra fiber and that fiber supplements have their place too. “These might be helpful as you’re working on dietary changes to increase the fiber in your diet or to provide additional fiber beyond what you can achieve with your diet,” he says.
Since fewer than 10 percent of Americans currently get enough fiber, “many of us have work to do,” advises Collins. “Despite the size of the gap, closing it is achievable and has the potential to lead to an overall healthier diet.”
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