There are very few single nutrients capable of having a profound impact on overall health. One such nutrient is fiber. When consumed on a regular basis, fiber decreases cholesterol levels, reduces cravings, lowers blood pressure, keeps bowel movements regular and aids in weight management. Many label fiber a superfood because of all these great benefits, and like all superfoods, Americans don't consume nearly enough.
Fiber is amazing. Simply eating more fiber drastically improves overall health in a number of ways. There are very few times when adding just one nutrient into a diet yields so many benefits. Fiber is a rare gem in an otherwise complicated nutrition world.
Benefits of Fiber
Reduced Risk of Heart Disease. Bile is made from cholesterol and used during digestion. Production of bile is an intensive process so the body likes to reuse it. When fiber travels into the digestive system, it latches onto bile, expelling it from the body. Fiber does not allow the body to reuse bile.
Fiber forces the body to make more bile. Since bile is made from cholesterol, over a long period of time, producing more bile causes a reduction in cholesterol levels. This can lead to lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Regular Bowel Movements. Having enough fiber in the diet keeps the bowels working optimally. Constipation and diarrhea are not the norm. The digestive system works best when you eat the proper amount of fiber (20-35 grams per day) and drink an adequate amount of water (according to the NIH, about 6-8 8oz cups of water per day).
Cravings. Hunger is bad because it leads to cravings. When you get hungry/cravings, you start looking for junk food. When do people ever get cravings for salads or apples? Cravings happen for hamburgers, pizzas or ice cream; diet killers.
Foods high in fiber take much longer to digest than foods low in fiber. This results in a greater feeling of satiety between meals. When you are full, you are much less likely to get cravings for junk food.
Weight Management. Because fiber does a great job of keeping you full, it also keeps calorie intake down. When you eat high-fiber meals and snacks, you eat less throughout the day because of satiety. High-fiber meals/snacks keep you full for a much longer period of time than empty calories.
Consider the following example: a doughnut vs. a 100% whole wheat bagel. Both foods contain 150-200 calories. The doughnut is loaded with sugar and void of fiber while the 100% whole wheat bagel is packed full of fiber. Though both foods share similar calorie contents, a bagel keeps you full for much longer than a doughnut because it takes the body much longer to digest. The person who eats a doughnut instead of a bagel gets hungry a lot quicker and starts eating much sooner. This increases calorie intake, making weight management more difficult.
Sources of Fiber
A major problem with the typical American diet is the amount of processing involved before food reaches the table. Typically, the more processing food undergoes, the less nutrients (including fiber) it contains. For example, a ready to eat microwavable lasagna generally has less nutrients than a homemade lasagna. The same is true for fast food, junk food and restaurant food. Cooking more food (rather than buying ready to eat and processed convenience food) is the best way to improve meal quality.
Foods High in Fiber:
- 100% whole wheat products (bread, pasta, bagels, crackers)
- oats (old fashioned oatmeal)
- brown rice
- fruits (with peel)
- vegetables (french fries don't count)
- potatoes (with peel - dirty mashed potatoes, unfried, preferably not loaded with bacon, sour cream and/or butter)
- wheat bran
- flax seeds
How Much Fiber
On average, Americans eat 10-15 grams of fiber per day which is about half of the recommended intake. For optimal health, you need to consume 20-35 grams of fiber per day. When you include many of the sources outlined above, getting 20-35 grams of fiber is very easy. Relying on junk and convenience food makes getting to the daily recommended level difficult. When increasing fiber intake, do so gradually over the course of a few weeks to minimize abdominal discomfort.