Perryman Nutrition Column: All Fiber Is Not Created Equal

Note to Editors: The following nutrition column was written by Shirley Perryman, a Colorado State University Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, College of Applied Human Sciences. Perryman is a registered dietitian.

With our grocery dollar shrinking more of us are motivated to be sure we’re getting the most nutrition for our money. One important nutritional guideline to remember is to include adequate fiber in our diets to lower the risk of certain chronic diseases.

– Women younger than age 50 should aim for 25 grams and men need 38 grams.

– Once older than 50 the amount of fiber needed decreases because our calorie needs decrease as we age. Women need 21 grams and men of the same age need 30 grams.

What we need and what the average American gets don’t always match because most Americans consume about half the recommended amount of fiber.

All fiber is not the same. Here’s a rundown on the various kinds of fiber, their beneficial effects and sources:

– Whole grain breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables have been shown to lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Check the ingredient label to be sure a whole grain is listed as the first ingredient in packaged products. These foods are high in soluble and insoluble fiber and also contribute to satiety which may help with weight loss and weight maintenance.

– Insoluble fiber, which is not broken down in the digestive tract, is found in fruits and vegetables and in higher quantities in whole grains. It can help prevent constipation and some studies have shown insoluble fiber may decrease heart attacks by reducing inflammation, blood pressure or reducing the risk of clots.

– Soluble fiber, also in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is broken down during digestion. These gummy soluble fibers are linked to lowering cholesterol.

Food manufacturers continue to find new ways to get our dollars. They are adding fiber to foods that never had it before, such as yogurt, ice cream and drink mixes. Consumers are led to believe these "isolated" fibers are equal to the fiber that occurs naturally in food. There is no distinction on the nutrient facts label between naturally occurring and isolated fiber.

– Inulin, polydextrose and maltodextrin are soluble but they are not viscous or gummy so they don’t lower cholesterol or blood sugar. Adding gummy fiber to just any food won’t work either because it could affect the texture by making the food gummy.

– Polydextrose in amounts larger than 15 grams may cause a laxative effect for some sensitive individuals.

What’s a health conscious consumer to do? Eating foods with isolated fiber likely won’t hurt you but neither will they provide the benefits of consuming intact fiber either. Instead load up your grocery cart with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Just don’t replace naturally occurring fiber with manufactured isolated fiber foods.

Consider replacing half of your refined grain foods like white bread and rolls, as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with naturally occurring high fiber grains. Experiment in the kitchen and before you know it, healthful whole grains will become a dietary staple. Here are some ideas to integrate more whole grain into your daily diet:

– Only 12 percent of Americans know that popcorn is a whole grain. Steer clear of buttery, highly salted microwave or movie theater popcorn when choosing this quick-to-fix snack.

– An example of a new whole grain to look for is slightly crunchy quinoa which can be a great addition to the diet of those who are wheat sensitive. As an added bonus, it’s high in protein and cooks quickly. Rinse the grain first to remove the bitter coating.

– Other whole grains which may be new to you include spelt, teff, kasha and amaranth.

– Add dry whole grains to boiling water in the proportions specified in the directions and simmer until the liquid is absorbed. To speed up cooking time consider pre-soaking whole grains for a few hours before cooking.  

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