Dietary fiber. You’ve read about it, wonder if you’re getting enough — maybe even taken a fiber supplement. But what, exactly, is fiber? How does it help us stay healthy?
“Sometimes called ‘roughage,’ dietary fiber is actually a kind of carbohydrate that doesn’t break down into sugar molecules the way other carbs do,” said Chandler Nunes, registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions, in Charlotte. “So, while your body absorbs proteins, fats and other carbs, fiber actually passes through your body without being completely digested.”
- Maintaining steady blood sugar levels and improving insulin sensitivity.
- Reducing serum cholesterol levels.
- Lowering your risk for life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, obesity, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
To reap these and other benefits, it’s necessary to cut through some of the myths and marketing hype surrounding fiber. So, we turned to Nunes to clear up five of the most common misconceptions. An added bonus: She also offered two delicious, fiber-rich recipes (below).
Myth No. 1: Fiber is fiber — it’s all the same.
A healthy life starts with a check up.
Actually, there are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber mixes with water in the body and becomes gel-like. This gel slows digestion, which can keep you feeling full after eating. Soluble fiber is also helpful in controlling blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Foods higher in soluble fiber include:
- Oats, barley
- Peas, beans
- Apples, citrus fruits, carrots
- Psyllium (seed husks from the Plantago ovata plant)
Insoluble fiber, also called “roughage,” does not mix with water. When you consume it, this type of fiber can relieve constipation by adding bulk to your stool and helping it pass. Some examples of foods rich in insoluble fiber are:
- Whole-wheat flour, wheat bran
- Nuts, beans
- Cauliflower, green beans and the skins of fruits and veggies
All fiber rich foods contain both types, but the proportions of soluble vs. insoluble fiber vary.
Myth No. 2: Eating oatmeal for breakfast provides all the fiber you need.
A cup of oatmeal has a great nutrition profile, but at 4 grams of fiber it falls far short of recommended daily amounts. In fact, with an average fiber intake of only 16 grams per day, an estimated 95% of Americans fail to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fiber recommendations.
The amount of fiber we need depends on our age and gender, according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans:
- Women 20 to 50: 25-28 grams per day.
- Women 51 and over: 22 grams per day.
- Men 20 to 50: 31-34 grams per day.
- Men 51 and over: 28 grams per day.
- Children: Needs vary widely. Check with your health care provider.
Interestingly, the amount of fiber we need decreases as we age, because our digestion tends to slow down naturally over the years. So, to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort, people 51 and over should reduce their intake.
Also, a recent study revealed that some people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may be unable to digest dietary fibers. If you have IBD or any other health concerns, always check with your health care provider before changing your diet.
Myth No. 3: If “enough” fiber is good, more must be better.
Even though fiber is beneficial, it is possible to consume too much. Eating more than the recommended daily amount of dietary fiber can cause bloating, constipation, abdominal discomfort and gas. Plus, if you get too much soluble fiber, it can bind to certain nutrients, like calcium and iron, as well as to some medications, interfering with your body’s ability to absorb them as needed.
If you do need to increase your fiber intake, do so gradually. And be sure to increase your fluid intake, too, so you don’t become constipated or have discomfort.
Myth No. 4: All I need for a healthy gut are probiotics.
Probiotics, the trillions of microbes and bacteria that live in our gut, can boost physical and mental health and strengthen your immune system. However, probiotic microorganisms need to be properly “fed” — much as you would give plant food to your garden — with certain types of fiber known as prebiotics to keep them strong and ensure you get their full benefits.
Some of the best prebiotic foods include:
- Apples (with the skin on), bananas and berries.
- Legumes (soybeans, peas, lentils).
- Barley, wheat bran and oats.
- Onions and garlic.
- Dark chocolate.
Researchers have found that people who eat fiber-rich whole foods obtain far more benefits from probiotics supplements than those who take supplements without increasing their fiber intake at all.
Myth No. 5: I should count “net carbs” because fiber is never digested.
Counting “net carbs” — subtracting the number of grams of fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate count because they aren’t absorbed by the body and therefore don’t add calories — is popular right now.
But this equation is not backed up by science. And, in reality, our bodies actually may digest certain fibers and sugar alcohols. So it gets complicated.
A better approach to control your carb intake is to simply eat more nutritious, fiber-rich starches, like whole grains, legumes and vegetables. That way your “net carbs” will be lower, naturally.
8 tips that add up to a high-fiber day
Wondering what to eat to help you reach the USDA’s recommended fiber intake? Here are eight straightforward ways to make fiber-rich meals and snacks. You’ll be surprised at how quickly those grams add up:
- Blend up a homemade green smoothie for breakfast. Unlike juices, smoothies can retain as much as 13 grams (or more) of the fiber-rich pulp found in fresh and frozen fruits and veggies.
- Add two tablespoons of chia seeds to your morning yogurt, smoothie or oats for an extra 10 grams of fiber plus extra protein and healthy fats. Or add three tablespoons of wheat bran for an extra 5 grams of fiber.
- Enjoy a handful of unsalted, roasted nuts or seeds (like pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds) between meals or on salads for a 3-4 gram boost of fiber.
- Reach for fresh fruits at snack time, and get 5 grams of fiber from a medium apple or pear, and 9 grams from a cup of raspberries.
- Beef up salads and homemade or canned soups by adding legumes (like beans, peas and lentils). Just a half-cup provides 8-9 grams of fiber.
- Choose whole grain breads, cereals and pastas. You’ll get 5-7 grams of fiber from a bowl of bran flakes or a half-cup of whole-wheat spaghetti.
- Veggies like sweet potatoes, artichokes, carrots, broccoli and collard greens deliver a wonderful array of nutrients, including 5-9 grams of fiber per serving.
- Combine fiber-rich foods for even more benefits. For example: baby carrots with low-fat hummus, spinach salad with strawberries and sunflower seeds, or a turkey chili (like the one below) made with beans and veggies.
The Best Healthy Turkey Chili
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 pound extra-lean ground turkey or chicken
- 2-3 tablespoons chili powder (or more, to taste)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more, to taste)
- 1 (28-ounce) can diced or crushed tomatoes
- 1 1/4 cups chicken broth
- 2 (15-ounce) cans dark red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 (15-ounce) can sweet corn, rinsed and drained
Place oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic and red bell pepper and sauté for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add ground turkey and break up the meat. Continue cooking until no longer pink. Add chili powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne pepper and salt, stirring well. Then, add tomatoes, chicken broth, kidney beans and corn. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until chili thickens and flavors come together. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
If desired, top with avocado, cilantro, low-fat cheese and/or nonfat Greek yogurt (a healthy substitute for sour cream).
Note: To make this recipe in a slow cooker, reduce chicken broth to 1/2 cup and brown the turkey and onions before adding to the slow cooker. Cook on high for 3-4 hours, or on low for 6-7 hours.
Nutrition facts (makes 6 servings of about 1 1/2 cups each): 336 calories, 3.7 grams fat, 46.7 grams carbohydrates (9.5 grams sugars, 17.4 grams dietary fiber), 31.8 grams protein.
Adapted from: Ambitious Kitchen
- 1/2 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 2 teaspoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
- 2 (5-ounce) cans salmon, drained, flaked, skin and bones removed
- 2 avocados
- Chopped chives for garnish
DirectionsCombine yogurt, celery, parsley, lime juice, mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper in a medium bowl, stirring well. Add salmon and mix thoroughly.
Halve the avocados lengthwise and remove the pits. Scoop about 1 tablespoon of the flesh out of each avocado half, and place it in a small bowl. Mash the scooped-out avocado flesh with a fork and stir into the salmon mixture.
Mound about 1/4 cup of the salmon mixture on top of each avocado half. Garnish with chives, if desired.
Nutrition facts (makes 4 servings): 293 calories, 19.6 grams fat (3 grams saturated fat, 61.2 milligrams cholesterol), 10.5 grams carbohydrates (7 grams dietary fiber, 1.8 grams sugars), 399.8 milligrams sodium, 22.5 grams protein.
Adapted from: Eating Well