What You Should Know About Dietary Fiber

dietary fiber whole grains

If you pay attention to health news, you have probably heard a lot of talk lately about the need for most people to consume more fiber. Why do we need it? How much should we consume? If you are stumped, this article will cover all the basics.

What Is Fiber?

All of the plants we eat have fiber. It is an indigestible complex carbohydrate that comes in both soluble and insoluble forms. Soluble fiber foods, such as gum and pectin, dissolve in water, while insoluble fiber, such as cellulose and lignin, among others, do not.

Why eat something you cannot digest? For one thing, fiber is good for the bowels, helping you to move the digested matter out of your body. It is said to play a role in reducing heart disease, controlling type-2 diabetes (when complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and beans are eaten regularly), and it reduces the risk of diverticulitis, a disease that involves inflammation of the colon. It can also prevent constipation by supporting a healthy bowel.

Insoluble fiber is particularly useful for digestive health, while the soluble form is noted for helping to lower cholesterol and glucose levels in the blood. Both are necessary to a healthy diet, but most Americans consume far less than the levels recommended by health experts.

How Much Do You Need?

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends getting 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day for adults. For children, the number of grams should equal the child's age plus 5 grams (15 grams for a 10-year-old, 13 for a 8-year-old, etc.).

But how much fiber is in different foods, and what are good sources? This chart offers some basic fiber measurements.

Here are some other good sources of foods high in fiber:

Soluble fiber Insoluble fiber
Oatmeal and oat bran Whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, etc.)
Nuts and seeds Whole grain cereals (read the label, just because there's wheat doesn't mean whole wheat)
Legumes (peas, beans, lentils) Wheat bran
Apples Carrots
Pears Cucumbers
Strawberries Zucchini
Blueberries Tomatoes

Increasing Your Intake

It is not difficult to get more of this beneficial element out of foods in your regular diet. Here are some suggestions on ways to bulk up your intake:

  • Switch from white bread to whole-wheat bread. Read the label: some breads packaged as wheat bread are not made from whole grains.
  • Eat a high-fiber (five grams or more per serving) breakfast cereal or try oatmeal for breakfast.
  • Eat whole fruit instead of drinking fruit juice; the pulp (in citrus fruit) and skins (apples and pears) provide a lot of the fiber.
  • Add wheat bran to baked goods, on top of yogurt or slip some into casseroles and other baked goods. It will add a nutty flavor and a good amount of fiber.
  • If you bake bread at home, look for recipes that use whole wheat flour and bran, or switch up half of the white flour for wheat flour in your recipes.
  • Eat more whole grains, such as brown rice instead of white rice.Try whole grain couscous and pasta, barley, oat groats and other interesting, high-fiber foods (they are delicious, too).
  • Eat more vegetables. Use frozen veggies as a quick side dish, or add more vegetables to spaghetti sauce, chili, pizza and other family favorites. Keep pre-washed carrots on hand for a quick fiber-filled snack.
  • Eat more beans. Beans are great in chili, as a taco and burrito filling, in curries, Mediterranean dishes and more. They also make a quick side dish; just open a can of beans, add some seasoning that goes with your meal, and heat through. Add beans to salads or snack on bean dip.
  • Make mindful snack choices, such as whole-grain crackers, fruit and vegetables.

Should I Take a Supplement?

Many people take supplements to increase their fiber intake without changing their diets. Some doctors might even recommend dietary supplements for people with certain health issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome or chronic constipation. There is no evidence it is harmful to take these supplements even on a long-term basis. But as with all things necessary for a healthy diet, it is far better to get the nutrition from whole foods, rather than out of a bottle. If you are worried about your fiber intake, or unable to reach 20 to 35 grams of fiber on a daily basis, supplementing your diet could be the right choice for you.

Fiber supplements can decrease the absorption of certain medicines, including aspirin, so take your supplement at least two hours before or after you take other medications. Check with your doctor to make sure it will not interact with your medications.

Adjusting to a High-Fiber Diet

Fiber is indigestible, which means it passes unaltered through your body. Some people will notice increased gas when eating more of it because it is metabolized by gas forming in the colon.

Most people who continue to eat a high-fiber diet will find gas decreases over time. If you have a problem with too much gas, pay attention to which foods are particularly volatile for you and avoid them, or eat them with a lot of other foods to lessen the amount you are digesting at any one time.

Also over-the-counter enzymes you can buy are said to ease the digestion of high-fiber foods, which may be of some help. The bottom line is that eating more fiber is quite beneficial and worth any temporary discomfort you may experience.

What You Should Know About Dietary Fiber