Fiber Matters

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In a recent business meeting, one employee was being especially cantankerous and another remarked that the first obviously needed more fiber in his diet. Everyone laughed and the meeting continued.

The point of this anecdote is that everyone at the meeting knew that fiber in the diet is a good thing, and that its absence can make us cranky. What they might not have known is why, nor the other remarkable benefits that accrue with adequate dietary fiber. They might be especially interested to know that fiber is a vital key to staying slim.

On the theory that we’re more likely to do the stuff that’s good for us if we understand why it’s good for us, here are the top 10 things you should know about fiber, along with some recommendations for tasty, inexpensive ways to boost the amount of fiber in your diet.

What is Fiber?

Fiber refers to the parts of plants that humans can’t digest. Generally classified as either soluble or insoluble fiber, it is found in varying amounts in all vegetables and fruits. The American diet is extremely low in fiber because we traditionally have focused on refined grain products, such as white breads and pastas, and eat few vegetables and fruits. Insufficient fiber in the diet can cause constipation, which is not only uncomfortable, but also extremely unhealthy. Good sources of fiber include whole-grain breads and cereals, beans, bran, vegetables and fruit. Flax seed and psyllium seed are also superb sources of fiber. Fiber supplements are available, but food sources are more often recommended because they provide whole nutrition.

Start Slowly

It’s hard to imagine another simple lifestyle change that could have such far-reaching implications as simply reaching for whole-grain bread and fresh fruit. If you aren’t in the habit of eating fiber-rich foods, start slowly and go for what you find most delicious first. You may not be a bean fan, but you’ve always enjoyed strawberries. Maybe fruit has never appealed to you, but you just can’t get enough carrots. Slow and steady wins the race, and the prize at the end of the road is your health. That’s worth making some changes for, isn’t it?

Top 10 Fiber Facts

1 Fiber helps add volume to your meals without adding calories. It also helps your digestion by assisting the peristaltic process, allowing digested food to move more easily and more quickly through the colon. Fiber helps sweep away harmful toxins.

2 A high-fiber meal helps stave off hunger because its cellular structure takes longer to break down in the intestinal tract. While it’s there, you don’t feel as though the fuel tank is empty.

3 Fiber helps reduce the absorption of fat from food and drinks and can help prevent obesity.

4 High-fiber foods give you more energy on a sustained basis because they help maintain stable blood glucose levels. The energy is released steadily over time, rather than in short bursts, like sugar provides.

5 The recommended average daily allowance for fiber is between 20 and 35 grams. For example, one cup of cooked beans has about 12 grams of fiber, a slice of whole-grain bread has about 2 grams, and an apple has about 3 grams.

6 Most Americans eat less than 50 percent of this suggested daily fiber intake. Where do you fit on the fiber continuum?

7 A high-fiber diet reduces your risk of cancer. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water, so it moves food through your gut more quickly, which decreases your exposure to carcinogens. It also helps cleanse your colon as it moves along, acting like tiny brushes that sweep the colon walls free of potential toxins.

8 Diets high in fiber help the body absorb certain vitamins and minerals during the digestive process. This is accomplished when soluble fibers are broken down and become absorbed in the intestines rather than in the stomach.

9 Soluble fiber also helps lower blood cholesterol. A happy coincidence is that foods with plenty of soluble fiber are also delicious: oats, oat bran, oatmeal, peas, beans, barley, citrus fruits and strawberries, to name the stars.

10 Insoluble fiber is a critical part of normal bowel function. If you eat a diet rich in wheat cereals, wheat bran, grains such as rye, brown rice and barley; vegetables such as cabbage, beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts and turnips; and, everybody’s favorite, the apple, you may never need a laxative.

Kathryn Compton is editor in chief of Herbs for Health.

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