Learn the Facts About Fiber to Improve Your Health

What if you could change an element of what you eat and improve your health? 

I’m not talking about counting calories or drinking expensive green juices either!  I’m talking about fiber.  

As a non-diet dietitian, I’m not going to teach you to count calories or eat foods you don’t like.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you pursue your health goals – while still helping you to enjoy all the foods you love!

In this article, we are going to dig into the facts about fiber and how we can use it to improve your health.  Plus I’ll give you practical suggestions for increasing the amount of fiber you eat – but not too much!

Read on for all the facts about fiber…

What is Fiber

As much as we talk about fiber, has anyone ever explained what it actually is? Let’s start with fiber 101. 

Fiber is part of the plant foods that we eat, and we actually can’t digest fiber (but the good bacteria in our gut can – more on that in a moment).  

 

There are two different types of fiber; insoluble and soluble. We need both, preferably from food (not supplements). 

 

Insoluble fiber

I call insoluble fiber “the pipe cleaner.”  Insoluble fiber is what we would typically think of as roughage in the diet. It helps to slow the absorption of food, it also helps food waste move through our intestines and helps prevent constipation. 

Foods that are high in insoluble fiber include wheat bran, whole wheat, fruits, and vegetables.

 

Soluble Fiber

I like to call soluble fiber “the sponge.” Soluble fiber does its magic by binding to cholesterol so it can be excreted from our bodies.

Soluble fiber is something that you can see if you make a bowl of oatmeal. Have you ever noticed how it gets kind of goopy and gel-like on the top? That is part of the soluble fiber! I think it’s super cool!

Many foods are high in soluble fiber. Some of them are black beans, apples, pears, figs, artichokes, barley, and more.

We aren’t getting enough fiber

Here’s the bad news: the more we eat convenience foods the less fiber we tend to have on a daily basis. 

Think back to the way your grandparents ate.  Life was slower paced, they cooked most food at home, groceries ate up less of their budget, and they had fewer packaged foods.  They tended to eat more fiber.

Fast forward to today:  We are all very busy and many of us need to eat on the go.  We have less time to cook from scratch.  Additionally, groceries (particularly whole grains, and fresh fruits and veggies) can eat up a large chunk of our budget which makes it harder for people on limited budgets to eat higher-fiber foods. 

In fact, many quick and easy foods that are low in fiber are relatively inexpensive. Some food manufacturers add fiber back into foods that don’t naturally have it, and they charge extra for that too.

Add to that, some food labeling is just plain confusing! When you see a food with a label that says “Source of Whole Grains,” you might assume that the food is high in fiber.  That’s not always the case. I see it more as a form of marketing trickery that encourages us to buy one product instead of another.

This can be really frustrating to hear but I don’t want you to lose hope!  With some planning, we can still add some fiber back into our diet without obsessing or breaking the bank.  

What are the health benefits of fiber?

The fact that our body can’t break down (or digest) fiber might not sound like a good thing. In reality, this quality of fiber is what makes it so beneficial.

Research shows that eating a recommended amount of fiber has many benefits, including the following:

 

1.  Fiber helps keep our blood glucose levels stable.  

One area where soluble fiber shines is in its ability to keep blood sugar levels more stable.  When we eat foods with soluble fiber, they take longer to go from our stomach to our small intestines (where the energy, vitamins, and minerals get absorbed).   

Because the components of the food we eat, including glucose from our carbohydrates, enter our bloodstream more slowly, our blood sugars don’t get so high.  And because blood sugars don’t get as high, our body needs to release less insulin.  

This improves our metabolic health overall and lowers our risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

  

2.  Fiber can help us feel fuller for a longer period of time.

Do you ever eat a meal and then you’re super hungry an hour later, while other foods keep you satisfied for a longer period?  There are many different things that can contribute to this but fiber can help give our food some “staying power.”  

I know that making sure I’m not getting hangry during meetings is important, so using fiber-filled foods is one strategy I use to make me feel good. 

Remember how I mentioned the slowing of digestion in #1 above?  Well, the same thing that slows digestion and absorption means that we stay pleasantly full for a longer period. This means we can eat 3 meals and a couple of snacks every day, without experiencing hunger pangs in between. 

Now, it’s still incredibly important for us to eat enough food so using fiber to restrict is not a healthy thing to do. 

 

If you are a woman in midlife who has been living life with a “calories in – calories out” mentality, I want you to know that this can result in negative health consequences as you age.  Check out my article about middle-aged body changes and healthy ways to handle them.  

 

3. Fiber decreases constipation and often associated conditions like diverticulitis.

Insoluble fiber increases bulk in our stool, which makes constipation less likely. Also, because the stool tends to be softer in the digestive tract, it puts less pressure on our intestines.  This factor makes diverticulitis flare-ups less likely. IYKYK 😉

 

4. Fiber reduces the risk of colorectal cancer.

Research shows that people with lower intakes of dietary fiber have an increased rate of colorectal cancer.  Part of the benefit of fiber in reducing colorectal cancer is that the undigested fiber travels all the way through our digestive tract.  

And it doesn’t just get excreted – that fiber actually feeds the gut bugs (aka microbiota) that live in our large intestine.  This fiber changes our gut bugs and allows them to produce compounds that have health benefits. Super cool, isn’t it?

 

5. Fiber improves cardiovascular health.

Fiber has been shown to decrease total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides. It is also linked to lower blood pressure.  These factors all lower our risk of heart attack and stroke.

 

Now that I’ve explained WHY we should eat enough fiber, you probably want to know how much you should eat every day.

How much fiber do I need every day?

How much fiber you should eat, depends on a few factors, like age and sex. According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most adults should aim to reach 25-35 grams of fiber a day.

 

According to US Government research, only 5% of men and 9% of women are eating the recommended amount of fiber.  That’s surprising, isn’t it?!

 

How do I get enough fiber in my diet?

I recommend that you try to get most of your fiber from the food you eat first, rather than a supplement.  This is because fiber supplements and foods with added fiber may not have all of the beneficial vitamins and minerals.  If you need a little boost, using a fiber supplement (like Metamucil, etc.) can be a good strategy though.

The good news is that fiber is in all whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. That means there are easy opportunities to get fiber throughout your day.

One of my favorite ways to increase fiber is to add 1-2 servings of fruits and vegetables.  But that doesn’t have to be raw carrots and celery – unless that’s your thing, of course!  If you love raw veggies, adding a dip like hummus can boost flavor and help your body absorb vitamins more (and hey, that hummus has fiber, too!). 

All too often, we treat fruits and veggies as a punishment and I want you to know that these don’t have to be boring, plain diet foods.  

Fruits and veggies don’t have to be eaten plain and steamed.  In fact, I have a whole article devoted to this topic: How to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables – And Actually Enjoy It!  

 

Clearly, there are so many benefits to eating adequate fiber, but there are some things to consider.

 

A few words of caution when adding fiber to your diet.

There are a few important things to know when you are adding fiber to your diet.

1.   Go slow. Sometimes we are so excited to try a new healthy behavior that we go all in.  This can be unsustainable AND lead to some serious GI discomfort.   A better strategy:  If you aren’t eating much fiber currently, add 1 or 2 servings of fiber-containing foods to your daily intake for a week or two.  See how you feel.  Adjust upward to meet your goal.

2.  Drink adequate water.  Don’t skip this recommendation!   You need to drink enough water to help the fiber move through your digestive tract.  Drinking too little can cause additional bloating, stomach discomfort, or (ironically) constipation.  For most people, 6-8 glasses of water is enough.

3.  Keep things in balance. Everything you eat doesn’t need to be whole grain.  Similar to my advice around going slow, don’t let the excitement of something new have you obsess over white vs. whole grain bread.  

You can – and should – eat white bread, and white rice, and still get adequate fiber.  I want you to eat things you really enjoy. Adding high-fiber foods you don’t like is only going to make you resentful, and likely to rebel.  Remember, we’re looking for changes that taste AND feel good so you can keep them for the long haul.

4.  Don’t overdo it on fiber.  Really! Sometimes we think:  If I can get more than the recommended amount, that will be even better!! I know the temptation is there, but the well-researched recommendations are there, and eating more can lead to some negative effects.

5.  If you have IBS, IBD, or diverticulosis, get individualized advice. These conditions need special attention when it comes to fiber.  Please work with a dietitian to make the best plan for you.

 

Now, many people feel defeated because they might be eating half the recommended amount.  I want you to remember that slow and steady changes are the ones most likely to stick around.  Therefore, I recommend making small swaps each week. Experiment with what you like, skip what you like, and keep trying until you find what works for you.

 

Some Simple Changes to Increase Dietary Fiber

I don’t recommend doing all of these at once because you might end up with too much fiber, or with food you don’t love.  But you can experiment with some of these simple changes and see which ones keep your meals enjoyable but also increase your fiber intake:

  1. Swap some juice for whole fruit. One whole orange has 4 grams of fiber, vs. a glass of juice – has less than 1 gram. 
  2. Add legumes, dried beans, or canned beans to your taco meat or chili; top your salad with edamame or garbanzo beans. Beans contain 5-8 grams of fiber per half cup.
  3. Swap half of your granola for All-Bran cereal. All Bran contains 6 grams per ⅓ cup.
  4. Experiment with new grains instead of rice or couscous.  Whole grains like barley and farro are filled with fiber.

 

What’s it like to work with a non-diet dietitian

As you can see from this article, I’m not that kind of dietitian who focuses on counting points and pounds or thinks you should eat foods for the health of it, even if you think that they’re gross. 

Sustainable, lasting nutrition habits help to fuel your health and feel good, too. 

In our diet-y culture, this can be easier said than done. If you’re a woman who is looking to improve her health without dieting and restriction, working with a dietitian like me could be what you need.

 

Key Takeaways:

Dietary fiber has many health benefits and most of us aren’t getting the recommended amount.

Diets high in dietary fiber can help regulate blood sugar, improve our heart health, and reduce the risk of diabetes and colorectal cancer.

Remember, you don’t have to stop eating the foods you love to get enough fiber, however!  Small changes can help you reach recommended amounts of fiber without restriction.

 

Why not schedule a complimentary Take Action Call with me to discuss your unique health goals?  It’s a great chance for us to see if we’d be a good fit!

 

References:

Andrea Union-Caballero, Tomas Merono, Cristina Andres-Lacueva, et al: “Apolipoprotein E gene variants shape the association between dietary fibre intake and cognitive decline risk in community-dwelling older adults.” Age and Ageing, January 2023

 

Lin D, Peters BA, Friedlander C, Freiman HJ, Goedert JJ, Sinha R, Miller G, Bernstein MA, Hayes RB, Ahn J. Association of dietary fibre intake and gut microbiota in adults. Br J Nutr. 2018 Nov;120(9):1014-1022. doi: 10.1017/S0007114518002465. PMID: 30355393; PMCID: PMC8451428.

 

Kazumasa Yamagishi, Koutatsu Maruyama, Ai Ikeda, et al: “Dietary fiber intake and risk of incident disabling dementia: the Circulatory Risk in Communities Study.” Nutritional Neuroscience, February 2023 

 

Barber TM, Kabisch S, Pfeiffer AFH, Weickert MO. The Health Benefits of Dietary Fibre. Nutrients. 2020 Oct 21;12(10):3209. doi: 10.3390/nu12103209. PMID: 33096647; PMCID: PMC7589116.

 

Mathers JC. Dietary fibre and health: the story so far. Proc Nutr Soc. 2023 May;82(2):120-129. doi: 10.1017/S0029665123002215. Epub 2023 Feb 14. PMID: 36786062.

 

https://nutrition.org/most-americans-are-not-getting-enough-fiber-in-our-diets/