If there were a pill that could help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol and prevent cancer, would you take it?
You can get all that, and more, from fiber — yet most Americans get less than half of what they need each day.
“Diet analysis of my students shows that fiber intake is generally low,” said Rod Hansen, associate professor of nutrition at Weber State University. “Thirty percent have adequate fiber. They eat a lot of mac and cheese and noodles that are not whole-wheat based. It’s very low fiber. We like to get filled up quick. Fiber takes too long to chew and ingest. We don’t want to put up with it.”
Ogden Regional Medical Center registered dietician Katie Wewer agrees.
“Fiber is your friend because it’s so good for you,” she said. “Most Americans get half of what they need, if that. Most of my clients get 10 to 12 grams.”
Hansen said women should eat 25 grams of fiber a day, and men need 38 grams.
Wewer wants her clients to eat their recommended amount of fiber because it helps them get full faster and feel full longer, which is a key to weight control.
Hansen said fiber also prevents colon cancer, because it makes the gastrointestinal tract work harder.
“If you eat fiber, you are giving your intestines a workout on the treadmill. The GI tract literally gets stronger. In theory, fiber can prevent the growth of cancer,” he said.
Chelsey Alberts, a registered dietician with McKay-Dee Hospital, adds that fiber takes up more space in the colon, reducing gastrointestinal problems like diverticulosis and slowing digestion so blood sugar doesn’t spike.
“Fiber is one of the best ways to lower cholesterol naturally,” adds Grant Cefalo, a McKay-Dee Hospital registered dietician. “Cholesterol binds to fiber and gets excreted.”
Soluble vs. insoluble
Soluble and insoluble fiber are found in different types of food. To summarize explanations by Cefalo and Ogden Regional Medical Center registered dietician Rina Jordan:
• Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, legumes and the inside of fruits and vegetables. It lowers blood sugar and bad cholesterol, increases satiety and reduces the risk of coronary artery disease.
• Insoluble fiber is found in wheat bran, rye, nuts, seeds, legumes and the outer skin of fruits and vegetables. It cleanses the colon, promotes bowel regularity and helps decrease the risk of colon cancer.
Jordan says to think roughage like fruit and vegetable skins for insoluble fiber, and gummy like oatmeal for soluble fiber. She adds that while both types are important, there is no recommended daily amount, and counting grams may be more trouble than it’s worth.
“If you eat 25 to 30 grams of fiber, you’ll get both,” Jordan said. “Counting grams doesn’t make sense. If you are eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes you will get a variety of fiber.”
However, if you rely on fiber supplements or high-fiber bars, you may not be getting enough insoluble fiber, according to McKay-Dee Hospital registered dietician Joy Musselman.
“Soluble fiber is water soluble,” she said. “You can add a supplement mix to water, where insoluble fiber won’t dissolve. Supplements are primarily soluble, but dietary sources have both types.”
You can’t get it all from wheat bread, either.
“If you only eat whole-wheat bread, you won’t get soluble fiber. Eat fruits, vegetables, oats and beans. The key is just get more fiber,” said Charlotte Scott, registered dietician with McKay-Dee Hospital.
Take it slow
Increasing your fiber intake too quickly can be a problem.
“Slowly do it. Not just one day to the next. That can take a toll on the digestive tract,” Alberts said.
Wewer recommends starting with a mix of white and whole-grain bread and pasta before switching to 100 percent whole grain.
And, as you increase fiber, you should also increase water, because fiber absorbs water and can cause constipation, adds Alberts.
Be careful about too much fiber in one sitting, Cefalo cautions.
“Fiber One cereal has 13 grams of fiber in a half a cup,” he said. “If you eat a full cup you can get abdominal pain from eating that much at one time, especially if you have a sensitive GI tract or irritable bowel syndrome.”
Wewer says it’s better to get fiber from fruits, vegetables, and legumes than from supplements or high-fiber products, because many manufacturers add isolated fibers to products to increase the amount of fiber.
“These (isolated) fibers have not been proven to have the same heart-healthy effects as fiber naturally found in food,” she said. “If an ingredient label includes oat fiber, inulin, modified food starch, maltodextrin or polydextrose, chances are isolated fibers are in there. It’s not bad, it’s just not as good.”
GETTING MORE FIBER
Some ideas from the experts on ways to figure more fiber into your diet:
• Getting more fiber is as easy as avoiding processed foods and getting five fruits and vegetables a day, according to Rod Hansen, associate professor of nutrition at Weber State University.
• It’s better to replace high-fat foods with high-fiber foods than to use fiber supplements. said Rina Jordan, a registered dietician at Ogden Regional Medical Center.
“People tend to have an apple pie with a whole lot of fat and little fiber,” she said. “Replace it with apples and you’ll get a lot of fiber.”
• Consider beans, recommends Grant Cefalo, a registered dietician at McKay-Dee Hospital.
“You can add beans to anything,” he said. “I call them a super food because there are so many benefits They have vitamins, minerals, fiber, lean protein and they are inexpensive.”
• Eat whole-grain bread, cereal and pasta, instead of less-refined cereal and crackers, suggests Chelsey Alberts, also a registered dietician with McKay-Dee Hospital.
• Add wheat flour to your baking, says registered dietician Joy Musselman of McKay-Dee Hospital.
“Mix half and half white and wheat flour,” she says. “That’s a good ratio in everyday cooking. It doesn’t affect the quality of baked goods. As you become more used to it, add more wheat.”
• Make sure the bread you buy is truly whole grain, and not refined bread colored brown, according to Hansen. A good wheat bread should have four grams of fiber for every 100 calories.
“There could be a loaf of bread that’s dark, but it’s not wheat. It has been colored,” he said. “Look at the label. If it doesn’t start with whole grain, it’s not whole grain.”
• Families may be more willing to try a whole-grain product like quinoa because they haven’t already grown used to a refined version of it, says Musselman.
“Figure out which whole-grain products you really like,” she said, “Maybe your family will accept whole-grain pasta but not brown rice. Half your grains should be whole-grain, so you have room to pick and choose. There are a lot of products. Some whole-grain products have the mouth feel of a white product. Try different types and have fun with it.”