By Emily Honeycutt, Food Revolution Network
You’ve heard fiber is important, but why is fiber good for you? And how can you get enough fiber? Discover all the health benefits of this essential nutrient, the best high fiber foods, and an easy way to challenge yourself to get more fiber in your daily diet.
A whole food plant-based diet of beans, grains, vegetables and fruits is rich in fiber. This article provides links to a range of studies showing how fiber has been shown to prevent the recurrence of colerectal cancer as well as reducing the risk of getting other forms of cancer. Fiber also prevents obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The article shows how much fiber is in different foods so you can easily ensure you are getting enough each day.
If you want to live a long, healthy life, fiber is a critical nutrient you need to be eating every day. But fiber is often overlooked. And most people in developed countries aren’t getting nearly enough of it. Could your diet be lacking fiber? Probably so. In fact, only 3% of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber. Most Americans get about 10-15 grams of fiber per day — a number that falls far short of the 40 grams per day recommended by leading experts.
So why is fiber good for you? It aids your body in absorbing nutrients from food and eliminating toxins. It fills you up and helps you maintain more consistent energy levels. And it’s essential for healthy digestion, maintaining a healthy weight, preventing cancer and type 2 diabetes, and other proven health benefits.
Is Fiber the Real “Fountain of Youth”?
We hear a lot about the power of superfoods to extend our lives and keep us well. But it could be that fiber is better than all of them! A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests how powerful fiber consumption is to human health. Researchers analyzed 17 studies, including nearly a million participants, and found that every 10 grams of fiber consumed per day cut mortality risk by 10 percent.
What Is Fiber, Exactly?
You’ve probably heard that you need to eat more fiber. But what is fiber? Fiber is found in the cell walls of plants, where it provides structure and functions as sort of as a skeleton. It’s not digestible by humans, so it doesn’t provide nutrients or calories. But it’s critical to your health anyway. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Each performs a different job in your body.
- Soluble fiber helps lower blood glucose levels and cholesterol, and is found in foods, such as oatmeal, beans, and legumes, as well as in some fruits and vegetables.
- Insoluble fiber acts like a broom, cleaning out your digestive tract, and is found in foods, such as whole grains, kidney beans, bran, and fruits and vegetables.
Both soluble and insoluble fiber are found naturally in plant foods. Meat, dairy products, eggs, and oils do not contain any fiber. And processed foods made with sugar or white flour generally contain very little fiber because any natural fiber is lost or removed.
Fiber is Necessary for Maintaining a Healthy Digestive System
Fiber is known for its ability to keep you regular and reduce constipation, but it has other benefits for maintaining healthy digestion as well. For example, diverticulitis – inflammation of the intestine – is one of the most common age-related digestive disorders in the modern world. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, consuming foods rich in insoluble fiber has been found to reduce the risk of diverticulitis by 40%!
Fiber is Essential for Maintaining a Healthy Weight
By increasing your fiber intake by only 14 grams per day, you can reduce your calorie intake by 10 percent, while increasing your sense of “fullness” and satisfaction. Soluble fiber mixes with water in the gut to create a gel. This gel-like substance slows the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream while triggering stretch receptors in your stomach, telling you you’ve had enough. So, you feel full and satisfied by eating the same volume of food, even when that food has fewer calories.
Fiber Plays a Critical Role in Cancer Prevention
Fiber is an essential part of your waste removal system – constantly eliminating carcinogens before they become a problem. For instance, fiber works to prevent colorectal cancer by improving intestinal transit time – literally sweeping away carcinogens. In a study at the National Cancer Institute called the Polyp Prevention Trial (PPT), published in the Journal of Nutrition, participants were put on a high-fiber diet with an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Researchers focused on the recurrence of colorectal adenomas (polyps).
After adjusting for variables, it was found that the one food that made the most difference in whether or not participants had a recurrence of adenomas was the amount of beans they consumed. Many researchers believe this is because beans were the highest source of dietary fiber for most of the study participants.
But, fiber doesn’t just reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. It also reduces the risk of other forms of cancer as well, including cancers of the breast, prostate, mouth, and throat. Every 10 grams of fiber you eat is associated with a 10 percent reduced risk of colorectal cancer and a 5 percent fall in breast cancer risk, according to a study published in the Annals of Oncology. Another study published in Pediatrics showed how women who consumed 28 grams per day of fiber had a 24 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer before menopause, compared with women who ate 14 grams per day. The women who consumed the higher amount of dietary fiber also reduced their lifetime risk of developing breast cancer by 16 percent.
Fiber Is Good for Heart Health
Many cardiologists recommend eating oatmeal for breakfast. Their #1 reason? Oatmeal is full of soluble fiber. Researchers don’t yet fully understand the mechanisms behind fiber’s LDL (“bad”) cholesterol-lowering power, but according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the soluble fiber from oats can decrease LDL cholesterol without affecting HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In a review and meta-analysis of 22 different publications in the BMJ, greater dietary fiber was found to be associated with a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease.
High-fiber foods may also have other benefits for heart health, such as reducing blood pressure and inflammation.
Fiber Helps Control Blood Sugar and Reduce Type 2 Diabetes
Fiber has a unique ability to help regulate blood sugar. This is one of the reasons dieticians recommend that people with diabetes consume beans and legumes. These high-fiber powerhouses help slow the absorption of glucose, while also regulating blood sugar over time. In a recent study reported in Nutrition Journal, researchers tested the glycemic response of traditional beans and rice meals compared to rice alone. Seventeen men and women who had diabetes were given either plain white rice or white rice with black beans, white rice with pinto beans or white rice with kidney beans. Then, researchers measured participants’ blood glucose at 90, 120 at 150 minutes. Compared with white rice eaters, all groups who ate beans with their rice had better blood sugar control, with pinto and black bean-eaters faring best of all.
So, whether you have diabetes, prediabetes, or just want to have more steady blood sugar throughout the day in order to feel better and have more energy, a low sugar, high fiber, plant-powered diet, with the addition of beans, may be able to help you feel your best.
Fiber Helps Detoxify Your Body
Fiber helps get rid of toxins from the body. Through a process called osmosis, fiber extracts liquid that contains toxins, and then the body expels these substances.
How to Get Enough Fiber in Your Diet Each Day
Now that you know the health benefits of getting enough fiber, here are some easy ways to add more fiber to your diet.
- Replace beef with beans
- Choose oatmeal with berries or sliced apple, instead of eggs or sugary cereal
- Snack on fiber-rich foods, such as sliced apples with peanut butter or veggies and hummus
- Skip meat, dairy, and processed foods like cookies, crackers, chips, and sodas
- If you eat bread, choose whole grain brain, instead of white bread
Specific foods vary in their fiber content, but if you want to gauge how much fiber to eat, it can be helpful to estimate the number of grams of fiber in different food groups. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) offers this information in a handy chart.
To understand how much fiber you’re getting, here’s what you can do: Write down everything you ate and drank for one entire day and jot down your fiber score. As you track your fiber intake, you’ll notice that if your diet is made primarily from whole plant foods and includes plenty of beans, you’re probably getting enough fiber. However, if you’re eating meat, dairy, and processed foods — like white bread, cookies, crackers, chips, and soda, it can be challenging to achieve the goal of 40 grams of fiber per day.
How to Understand What Your Fiber Score Means
Less than 20 grams of fiber per day:
Your score is pretty typical for most people in the industrialized world, but that’s not good.
Here’s why: People with a fiber intake this low are at an increased risk for obesity and food cravings, as well as constipation and other digestive issues. You’re also at an increased risk for certain chronic diseases, including heart disease and some forms of cancer. But, the good news is, it’s easy to change all this by incorporating more fiber-rich foods into your diet!
20-39 grams of fiber per day:
You’re doing better than a lot of people in developed countries, but you still have a way to go. Focus on crowding out foods that contain no fiber by adding more fiber superstars, including beans. By doing this, you’ll find that you feel more satisfied, and maintain a healthy weight will become easier. You’ll further reduce your risk of chronic diseases as well.
40+ grams of fiber per day:
Your diet is full of fiber-rich whole plant foods. You’re in the 3% of the population that is actually getting the recommended amount of fiber. Way to go!
Sample Fiber-Rich Meal Plan
What does high-fiber eating look like? If most people eat only 10-15 grams of fiber per day, you may be thinking, how am I going to eat 40 or more grams of fiber per day? It’s easier than you think. Here’s what a typical day might look like:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with Cinnamon and Diced Apple: 4 grams for the oatmeal + 3 for the diced apple = 7 grams (one table spoon of flaxseeds would add another 2.7g)
- Lunch: Spinach arugula salad topped with ½ avocado, beets, and chickpeas: 4 grams for spinach and arugula, 4 grams for avocado and beets and 7 grams for chickpeas = 15 grams
- Snack: Veggies with Hummus: 4 grams for 1 cup veggies plus 3 ½ grams for ¼ cup hummus = 7 ½ grams
- Dinner: Lentil Mushroom Tacos; 7 grams for lentil-mushroom mixture, 4 grams for veggies on tacos, 2 grams for corn tortillas = 13 grams
Total Fiber: 42.5
What Are the Best High Fiber Foods?
Fiber is best found in its natural state and fiber is found only in whole plant foods. So, it’s best to fill your plate with fiber-rich foods, such as:
- Beans and other Legumes
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
Some people take fiber supplements, but they are likely of limited value as they are missing the nutritional co-factors, the beneficial vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that accompany the fiber in whole plant foods. Among whole plant foods, legumes are fiber superstars. To learn more about how to incorporate more beans into your diet, get all the benefits of beans, plus 12 recipes that will make you love them. And this infographic from Care2 can help you choose high fiber foods, though it isn’t comprehensive.
Take Action for Your Health: Fiber Challenge
Now that you know your fiber score and better understand how to get enough fiber in your diet, team up with a friend or family member and challenge yourself and each other to reach 40 grams of fiber per day on a consistent basis. If you’re new to eating a lot of fiber, it’s best to add fiber to your diet slowly because increasing your fiber intake too quickly can cause bloating and gas or other negative side effects. Also, it’s important to drink plenty of water while increasing your consumption of fiber-rich foods. When your body becomes used to the increase in fiber, you probably won’t experience any discomfort.
Now, hopefully, you can answer the question: Why is fiber is good for you? And you know how to get enough fiber in your diet. Getting what you need of this critical nutrient is possible, especially as you follow a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Start with one step. What’s one simple change can you make today to start incorporating more fiber into your diet?
Emily Honeycutt is the Content and Engagement Specialist for the Food Revolution Network. Emily has over a decade of experience teaching both nutrition and cooking classes with organizations including the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. She is passionate about making sustainable, whole food, plant-based living easy and delicious! For more articles and recipes, visit http://www.emilyhoneycutt.com.