The Benefits of Fiber
Fiber comes in two forms. Dietary fiber, which is the indigestible parts of plants that form the support structures of leaves, stems, and seeds. In a sense, you can think of dietary fiber as a plant's skeleton. Functional fiber consists of the indigestible forms of carbohydrates that are extracted from plants or manufactured in a laboratory and have known health benefits. Functional fiber is added to foods and is the form used in fiber supplements. Examples of functional fiber you might see on nutritional labels include cellulose, guar gum, pectin, and psyllium. (2) (Nutrition: A Functional Approach).
Most fibers pass through the digestive system without being digested and absorbed, so they contribute no energy to our diet. However, fiber offers many other health benefits.
Fiber helps us stay healthy
Research indicates that it may prevent many digestive and chronic diseases. The following are potential benefits of fiber consumption:
- May reduce the risk of colon cancer. Although there is some controversy surrounding this issue, many researchers believe that fiber binds cancer-causing substances and speeds their elimination from the colon. However, recent studies of color cancer and fiber have shown that the relationship between them is not as strong as previously thought (1) (Aune, Chan, and Lay, 2011; Park et al., 2005).
- Helps prevent hemorrhoids, constipation, and other intestinal problems by keeping our stools moist and soft. Fiber gives gut muscles something to push on and make it easier to eliminate stools.
- Reduces the risk for diverticulosis, a condition that is caused in part by trying to eliminate small, hard stools. A great deal of pressure must be generated in the large intestine to pass hard stools. This increased pressure weakens intestinal walls, causing them to bulge outward and form pockets. Feces and fibrous materials can get trapped in these pockets, which become infected and inflamed. This is a painful condition that must be treated with antibiotics or surgery.
- May reduce the risk of heart disease by delaying or blocking the absorption of dietary cholesterol into the bloodstream.
- May enhance weight loss, as eating a high-fiber diet causes a person to feel more full. People who eat a fiber-rich diet tend to eat fewer fatty and sugary foods.
- May lower the risk for type 2 diabetes. In slowing digestion and absorption, soluble fiber also slows the release of glucose into the blood. It improves the body's regulation of insulin production and blood glucose levels.
The adequate intake for fiber is 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams per day for men. Most North Americans eat only half of the fiber they need each day. Foods high in fiber and nutrient density include whole grains and cereals, fruits, and vegetables. The more processed the food, the fewer fiber-rich carbohydrates it contains. (2) (Nutrition: A Functional Approach).
Tips to increase your fiber:
- Select breads made with whole grains, such as wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Two slices of whole-grain bread provide 4-6 grams of fiber. Switch from low-fiber breakfast cereal to one that has at least 4 grams of fiber per serving.
- For a mid-morning snack, stir 1-2 tablespoons of whole ground flaxseed meal (4 grams of fiber) into a cup of low-fat or non-fat yogurt. Or choose an apple or a pear, with the skin left on (approximately 5 grams of fiber).
- Eat legumes every day, if possible (approximately 6 grams of fiber per serving). Have them as your main dish, as a side, or in soups, chili, and other dishes.
- When shopping, choose fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Buy frozen vegetables and fruits when fresh produce is not available. Check frozen selections to make sure there is no sugar or salt added.
1.) Aune, Chan, and Lay, 2011; Park et al., 2005
2.) Nutrition: A Functional Approach – Janice Thompson, Melinda Manore, Judy Sheeshka