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Most people think of fiber as basically tree bark. It's unappetizing and something that old people need to help keep them regular. And it's definitely not something gourmet foodies talk about because it's not sexy. But fiber is the key to health and something we all need a lot more of in our diets. Everyone (not just the elderly).
What is Fiber and Why is it so Important?
Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate and naturally concentrated in only one place: whole plant foods. Processed foods have less, and animal-products have no fiber at all. Animals have bones to hold them up. Plants have fiber. There's soluble fiber that dissolves in water and can be metabolized by the "good" bacteria in the gut and insoluble fiber that does not dissolve in water. Both forms have health benefits.
While fiber definitely helps keep you regular and maintains healthy bacteria in your gut, there are also a ton more health benefits to making sure you're getting enough of it in your diet. High fiber intake appears to reduce the risk of colon and breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and premature death in general. A number of studies now show that high fiber intake may also help ward off stroke. Current nutritional guidelines recommend that men should eat 39 grams of fiber per day and women 25. Sadly, most Americans only eat about 15 grams a day.
How to Add More Fiber to Your Diet
This is where Michael Pollan's famous quote on what we should eat from his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, holds true: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Whole plant foods —fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—are good sources of fiber. Processed foods--chips, cookies, crackers, burgers, chicken nuggets—aren't.
Legumes in particular are fiber superstars. A cup of peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, and other legumes give you twice as much fiber as fruits or vegetables. And if you're worried about gas from consuming too many beans, gas is one of the byproducts of the kind of healthy soluble-fiber fermentation. So you can take your increased flatulence as a sign that you’re doing it right. And maybe not go out in public places after you consume a bunch of beans.
What about Fiber Supplements?
While fiber supplements like Metamucil, Benefiber, Fiber Choice, and Citrucel can give a boost to diets low in whole plant foods, they're no substitute for the real thing. research suggests that aiming to meet fiber needs—or at least a large portion—through naturally occurring fiber in foods is ideal. When food choices focus on getting fiber, an individual typically consumes fewer calories, chooses foods that have a lower glycemic index, consumes more whole foods like fruits and vegetables (and thus more nutrients), and consumes fewer processed foods. Relying primarily on supplements or fortified foods means missing out on these things. So, while you may be getting plenty of fiber, overall diet quality hasn’t improved. Also, most research looking at health benefits is based on higher dietary or intact fiber intake, so consuming fiber from a supplement doesn’t necessarily guarantee the same outcomes.
Fiber also has different effects based on its solubility. An insoluble fiber like wheat bran helps constipation, but has little to no effect on glycemic response or heart disease. A soluble fiber such as b-glucan lowers cholesterol, but isn’t the most effective when it comes to regularity. And, not all soluble and insoluble fibers are equal. In fact, research has linked only a handful of specific fibers as being effective when it comes to inducing certain health benefits. This means that consuming a supplement or fortified food has little effect if it doesn’t contain a specific type associated with health benefits.
So, instead of reaching for your Metamucil, why not whip up a black bean burrito? It has more fiber that will give your more health benefits, and if you add guacamole it tastes delicious! That sounds like a friendship made in heaven to me.
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