The Importance Of Dietary Fiber
We all know that dietary fiber is a health ally and research links fiber intake to a multitude of health benefits. Unfortunately, only 5% of Americans are meeting the daily recommendations of 25 to 35g of fiber per day. So, if you’re among the 95%, read on for practical strategies to fill the fiber gap.
All Types of Fibers Count
Not all fibers were created equal but many of them come with their own inherent health benefits:
- Soluble fiber — These fibers attract water and dissolve in it, forming a gel that slows down absorption. Hence, soluble fiber is an excellent weight control aid as it induces satiety by delaying the emptying of your stomach. Slower gastric emptying also curbs sugar absorption, thereby helping to keep your blood glucose levels (and thus, insulin concentration) steadier — high insulin levels have been associated with an increased fat storage and a higher risk for diabetes. Soluble fiber also helps lower cholesterol levels thereby offering protection against heart diseases.
Soluble fiber exists in many different forms:
Inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOSO) are often added to foods as functional ingredients. They appear to stimulate the growth of friendly gut bacteria.
Mucilage and beta-glucans — naturally found in oats, oat bran, beans, peas, barley, flaxseed, berries, soybeans, bananas, oranges, apples and carrots — help to lower LDL cholesterol levels and may reduce risks of type 2 diabetes.
Pectins and gums promote good digestion and can help lower cholesterol levels. Seeds and fruits (like berries) are natural sources of pectins and gums which are also extracted from peels of citrus fruits to improve the fiber content of processed foods.
Psyllium is extracted from rushed seeds or husks of the plantago ovata plant and helps lower cholesterol levels and improve bowel movement.
- Insoluble fiber — Also known as ‘gut-healthy fibers’, insoluble fibers like cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin remain mostly unchanged in water. Insoluble fiber acts like a sponge in the intestines, where it helps to prevent constipation by speeding the elimination of waste materials. This type of fiber also assists weight loss by adding bulk to the diet — this can help you feel full faster and thus, avoid overeating. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, wheat bran, nuts, seeds, and some fruits and vegetable.
- Resistant starches, as the name suggests, resist digestion in the small intestine and slowly ferment in the large intestine where they act as prebiotic fibers and serve as food for intestinal bacteria. The microbes ferment resistant starches, producing beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and improving the environment for healthful bacteria to thrive. Moreover, SCFAs have been shown to improve mineral absorption in laboratory experiments. These starches are naturally found in green bananas, oatmeal, whole grains, seeds and legumes and have been shown to promote fullness.
Unleash your fiber potential
Yes, there are a wide variety of fiber supplements available on the market but why pay extra money for pills when you can get the fiber you need from these top ten fiber rich foods.
- Beans — Beans such as lima, adzuki, broad (fava), black, white, garbanzo, cranberry, black turtle soup, kidney, navy, French, mung, yellow, pinto, lentils and chickpeas taste great in soups, casseroles, stews, burritos or as side dishes and dips like hummus.
- Berries — Enjoy them fresh in the summer and frozen, preserved or dried during other seasons. You can add these antioxidant-packed gems to your cereals, salads, smoothies, desserts and sauces. Some people like blueberry and strawberry omelets.
If for some reason you’re not into berries, look no further than everyday fruits to make sure you’re getting enough fiber. Eat them whole instead of juicing and enjoy them as a snack (fresh or dried) or as dessert.
- Bran — You can sprinkle bran from oats, wheat, corn and rice on hot cereals or add some to batters and dough (think pancakes, muffins, cookies and bread).
- Brassica vegetables — Kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and red cabbage are not only rich in fiber: they also contain glucosinolates, cancer-fighting compounds. Enjoy these veggies in stir-fries, casseroles, soups, and salads or steamed as a side dish.
- Green leafy vegetables — These are fabulous in omelets and tossed salads but be creative and sauté them with olive oil, ginger, garlic, lemon and herbs to bring out their distinct flavor. And why not have green smoothies?
- Hot potatoes — Try adding cooked potatoes (russet, red and sweet) with skins to salads, stews, soups, side dishes, stir-fries, and casseroles or simply enjoy baked potatoes more often.
- Nuts and seeds — For a fiber punch along with a bonus of heart-healthy fats, protein and phytochemicals, sprinkle a handful of nuts or seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame or flaxseed) over your cereals, salads, smoothies and desserts.
- Squash — Ratchet up your fiber intake with squash like crookneck, summer scallop, Hubbard, zucchini, acorn or spaghetti. Turn them into stews, soups, side dishes, salads, casseroles and crudités for a variety of flavors, textures, colors, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. And during summer, you can grill some squash to accompany your grilled meat.
- Sweet peas — I’m talking about cow peas (blackeyes), pigeon peas, split peas, green peas and podded peas. Use fresh, frozen or dried peas in soups, stews, side dishes, casseroles, salads, and dips.
- Whole grains — You can enjoy whole grains in side dishes, pilafs, salads, breads, crackers, snacks, and desserts. Great sources include amaranth grain, pearled barley, buckwheat groats, air popped popcorn, old fashioned oats, rye flour, millet, quinoa, teff, triticale flour, wheat berries, wild rice, whole wheat flour, brown rice, bulgur, whole wheat bread, rye wafers and whole wheat pasta. Remember: excessive consumption of whole grains can lead to inflammation and weight gain.
Love trying new foods? To push up your flavor and fiber quotient, try jicama, starfruit (carambola), asian pear, hearts of palm, guavas, abiyuch, lotus root, persimmons, breadfruit, avocado, edamame and taro.
Caution: If you’re not used to eating much fiber, add the above fiber-rich foods gradually to allow your body to adapt to your increased fiber intake; otherwise you might feel uncomfortably bloated and gassy.