By Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.
More than 100 years ago, someone figured out how to separate the bran from grains of wheat, leaving only the starchy interior to be ground into flour. From this discovery, an amazing new product – white bread – was born. But the introduction of refined flour products certainly contributed to the nation’s slow decline in dietary fiber intake.
It has been estimated that our hunter-gatherer ancestors – who foraged for food for hours every day – ate about 12 pounds of plant foods a day and about 100 grams of fiber. If we did that, we’d spend a good part of our day just eating. But the average American falls far short of meeting the fiber recommendation of 25 to 30 grams a day. In fact, most of us only eat about 15 grams. Fiber is the structural portion of a plant, and so it is found in whole fruits, vegetables, beans and grains (like corn and brown rice); there is no fiber in meats, fish or poultry. Different types of fibers have different effects on the body, and it’s important to get plenty of fiber from a variety of sources.
Water-soluble fibers are found in the highest concentration in apples, oranges, carrots, potatoes, oats, barley and beans. These types of fiber delay the time it takes for food to pass through the system, and so they provide a feeling of fullness. They also slow the absorption of glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream and so they help to keep blood-sugar levels more even throughout the day. This type of fiber is also helpful in lowering blood cholesterol levels, which is why oats and oat bran have been popular for heart health.
Water-insoluble fibers are found in the highest concentrations in vegetables, wheat bran, corn bran, rice bran and most other whole grains. These fibers speed up the transfer of food through the intestines and also trap water, so they are particularly good in helping to prevent constipation.
The health benefits of a high-fiber diet are numerous. Most people are aware that fiber keeps the intestinal tract functioning smoothly. For those wanting to lose weight, a high-fiber diet is a great way to go. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains have fewer calories “per bite” than do foods that have a lot of fat and sugar. Also, the fibers keep food in the stomach longer and absorb water, so they provide the sensation of fullness.
Can you get too much? Adding too much fiber to the diet in a short period of time might lead to abdominal discomfort and gas, so if your diet is usually low in fiber, increase the amount slowly over a few weeks to give your system time to adjust. Also, drink plenty of liquid to allow the fiber to soften and swell. And make sure to eat a variety of fiber sources to reap all the health benefits that high-fiber foods provide.
Tips for Increasing Fiber Intake
* Eat whole fruits with skin more often than drinking fruit juices
* Use whole fruit as dessert
* Eat a variety of whole vegetables – cooked and raw – and eat them freely
* Use whole-grain cereals, oatmeal and bran cereals more often than refined cereals, like cream of wheat or corn flakes
* Use 100% whole-grain breads, waffles, rolls, English muffins and crackers instead of those made with white flour
* Try whole-grain pasta
* Use corn tortillas rather than flour
* Use brown rice, wild rice, millet, barley and cracked wheat as alternatives to white rice
* Add beans to main-dish soups, stews, chili or salads
* Add wheat bran or oat bran to meat loaves or meatballs
* For snacks, use whole-grain pretzels, popcorn or low-fat bran muffins as alternatives to cakes, cookies and chips
* If you have trouble meeting your fiber intake, you can use fiber supplements, like Herbalife’s Active Fiber Complex. But remember that fiber supplements don’t replace the healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains that you should be consuming
Fiber Content of Some High-Fiber Foods