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[This is another in our series on the How and Why of Eating Healthy.]
We know that fiber can help prevent some cancers, reduce your cholesterol, help you avoid problems with heart disease and help diabetics control their blood sugar. Almost every week I read another positive study on how great high fiber foods are for your health. While there's no magical dietary cure, eating foods that are higher in fiber is pretty close and is one of the easiest changes you can make in your diet.
Fiber is what your grandma used to call "roughage." It's not one particular food, but it's simply the part of plant foods that your body can't digest. Fibers are technically carbohydrates, but your body doesn't have the enzymes to break them down. As a result, they're not absorbed and essentially have no calories.
Most of us need to increase the amount of fiber in our diet. The average American gets only 10 to 15 grams of fiber per day, while 25 to 30 grams per day is optimum.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber is often called a "sticky" fiber and is the one that is more effective in lowering cholesterol. It is found in dried beans and grains, such as oat bran, oatmeal and rye. Almost all fruits, such as apples, grapes, peaches, oranges and pears are high in soluble fiber (think sticky fruits). Most vegetables are high in soluble fiber as well.
Insoluble fibers are found in whole grain products, such as whole wheat flour, breads and pastas. Cereal grains like rice, wild rice and seeds are high in insoluble fiber.
There are some simple ways to make changes that will put more fiber in your life.
For breakfast, whole grain cereals like Shredded Wheat, bran flakes, 100% bran and oatmeal are great choices. Take a few moments to look at the box to compare the amounts of fiber in these cereals with the one you are eating. Look carefully, because many cereals will have higher fiber but will sometimes contain a lot of sugar as well.
If you like toast for breakfast, choose breads with higher fiber. Most bread will have only about two grams per slice, but it's easy to find choices with 5 grams or more. Even if the label says "whole wheat," you may find that it doesn't have that much fiber. Check the label. Use the same high fiber breads for your sandwiches at lunch.
Simply substituting ingredients in your favorite dinner recipes can help you get more fiber. Use whole wheat pastas, brown rice and wild rice. Replace potatoes with sweet potatoes or yams. Choose recipes that contain beans and other legumes like lentils and split peas.
Snacking on fruit is a great way to get more fiber. Fruits that are good high fiber choices are apples, strawberries and raisins.
So why should you care? Quite simply there is so much excellent research now to support eating a high fiber diet.
In one study, researchers looked at the relationship between eating whole grains, refined grains or cereal fiber and risk factors for heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes (Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1745-53). Results showed that those with the highest intake of whole grains and cereal fiber tended to have a lower Body Mass Index, weight, and waist circumference. They also had better cholesterol scores and a normal score in a 2-hour insulin reaction test (a common test for diabetes and pre-diabetic conditions).
One of my favorite pieces of research (on any topic) showed that those who ate a high fiber breakfast were more satisfied through the morning, ate less lunch and had improved blood sugar levels later in the day. (Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86;972-9)
Researchers in Spain analyzed five years of data from a large-scale study designed in collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health (Nutrition 2006:22;504-511). After looking at the data, they found that for men, higher fiber intake meant a lower risk of weight gain: up to 48% lower for the highest intake of fiber. For women, those eating the most fiber had a decreased risk of weight gain of 19%. Similarly, higher fruit and vegetable intake also meant a reduced risk of weight gain for men (although they saw no such effect for women).
It's never too late to put more fiber in your diet. One study in those over 65 showed that after adjusting for such factors as age, sex, smoking status, and level of exercise, those who consumed the highest level of cereal fiber (as opposed to vegetable or fruit fiber) had a 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who ate the least cereal fiber (JAMA. 2003;289:1659-1666).
It's simple, really: eat more fiber, lose weight, lower your risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
July 20, 2009
Last updated: 07/20/09