Nutrition Column – Don’t Forget the Fiber

When it comes to diet, most of us are not "roughing it" enough. The typical American diet is often low in fiber, an important dietary component that offers several health benefits.

The term "dietary fiber" refers to carbohydrates that cannot be digested. Dietary fiber is usually classified as either soluble or insoluble. Soluble fibers dissolve in water and consist of pectins, gums and some hemicelluloses. Insoluble fibers do not dissolve in water and consist of cellulose, lignin and some hemicelluloses. Both types of fiber are needed in the diet.

Fiber’s health benefits:  Fiber plays an important role in promoting overall health as well as potentially lowering the risk for several chronic diseases. Most foods that contain significant amounts of fiber are high in complex or simple carbohydrates and are low in fat and calories. Many also contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Because fiber-rich foods tend to take longer to chew and digest, they may help you eat less and feel full longer, which in turn can help with weight control. In addition, fiber works to sweep waste more rapidly through the digestive tract and soften stools, which helps to prevent constipation and hemorrhoids. Current research also suggests that soluble fiber may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes by lowering total blood cholesterol and regulating blood-sugar levels. Insoluble fiber has been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of colon cancer and preventing diverticulosis.

Sources of fiber:  Dietary fiber is found only in plant-based foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Foods rich in insoluble fiber include whole-wheat products, wheat and corn bran, brown rice, popcorn, seeds, many vegetables, the skin on fruits and dried beans. Good sources of soluble fiber include fruits such as apples, oranges, pears, peaches and grapes, many vegetables, oats and oat products, dried beans and peas, barley and flaxseeds.

How much is enough?  On average, Americans consume only 14 grams of dietary fiber per day, or about half the recommended amount. In general, nutrition experts recommend adults eat between 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily. For children and teens, the "age plus five" guideline is often used to determine daily fiber intake. For example, a child that is 10 years old needs about 15 grams of fiber per day (10 years + 5 = 15 grams of fiber).

Easy ways to boost your fiber intake:  If you currently aren’t meeting the recommended 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily, try these simple recommendations to boost your intake.

– In the morning, choose high-fiber (5 grams or more per serving) breakfast cereals.

– Switch to whole-grain breads, buns, bagels and pasta.

– Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

– Choose fresh fruit or vegetables rather than juice.

– Eat the skin and membranes of cleaned fresh fruits and vegetables.

– For snacks, choose raw vegetables, fresh or dried fruit, low-fat popcorn, nuts, seeds, or whole-grain crackers.

– Add brown rice, barley or whole-wheat pasta to soups.

– Make nachos with black beans, tortilla chips and salsa.

– Add garbanzo or kidney beans to your favorite green salad.

– Eat less processed foods and more fresh foods.

– Finally, make sure you accompany any increase in fiber with an increase in water.

Words to the wise:  It is important to boost your fiber intake gradually to give the bacteria in the stomach and intestines time to adjust. Increasing fiber intake too quickly can cause intestinal gas, bloating, cramps and diarrhea.

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by Pat Kendall, R.D., Ph.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension