Dietary fiber has long been considered the panacea for constipation and other gastrointestinal disorders like diverticulosis. Until recently, most Americans were virtually unaware of fiber's other health benefits; but thanks to food label changes and an increasing consumer awareness, more and more people are benefiting from fiber's powerful heart-health benefits.
The majority of us still don't take full advantage of what fiber has to offer. Health professionals recommend a minimum of 25 grams fiber each day, whereas the average consumer is taking in roughly 14 grams. But there is still hope – read on to find out how you can help reduce your heart-disease risk by fitting more fiber in.
Let's begin with a fiber review.
What is Dietary Fiber
Dietary fiber is a complex carbohydrate that your body can neither digest nor absorb. Although it is not considered a nutrient, fiber still plays an important role in good health. There are two main types of dietary fiber, insoluble and soluble. Each plays a unique role in your body.
Insoluble fiber is generally referred to as "roughage". Insoluble fiber promotes regularity and helps prevent constipation and diverticulosis by adding bulk and softness to stools and decreasing the time food spends in your intestines. Good sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran, whole-grain cereals, breads, pasta and rice, and vegetables.
Soluble fiber is recognized as offering the greater heart-health benefit. As soluble fiber passes through the intestines it forms a gel, binding with certain digestive enzymes (bile acids) made in the liver, and promoting their excretion as waste. Because the liver uses cholesterol to make bile acids, it must draw additional cholesterol from the blood in order to make more. The net result is a reduction in cholesterol absorption and a decrease in total and "bad" (LDL) cholesterol levels. Good sources of soluble fiber include oats, oat bran, barley, legumes, psyllium husks, pectin in fruits and some vegetables. For optimal cholesterol-lowering results, consume at least three servings of foods from this list each day.
Other Health Benefits
Guidelines for optimizing heart-health include achieving or maintaining a healthy body weight. Fiber-rich foods can fit into any weight loss plan; they are generally low in calories and fat, bulk up in your stomach, and help you feel fuller after a meal. This means fewer cravings for snacks during the day. Fiber-rich foods also generally take longer to chew, helping to slow you down and reduce your total calorie intake.
Soluble fiber can also regulate blood sugar levels. It is proposed that soluble fiber slows the emptying of the stomach, resulting in a slower release of sugar into the bloodstream. By helping regulate blood sugars, soluble fiber may reduce the amount of medication needed for persons with diabetes.
Let the Food Label Guide You
Here are a few key points to consider when determining a food's fiber content:
Look for the Health Claim
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two health claims that allow food companies to promote the heart disease-fighting benefits of whole grains on qualifying products. Choose often foods boasting one of the following claims:
"Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain some types of dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
"Soluble fiber from foods such as (name of soluble fiber source and/or food product) as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
Check out the Label
The Nutrition Facts panel on food labels provides you with specific amounts of dietary fiber per serving. Choose foods boasting 'High Fiber' most often.
- 'High Fiber Food': means the food product has 5 grams or more fiber per serving.
- 'Good Source of Fiber': means the food product has 2.5 to 4.9 grams fiber per serving.
- 'More or Added Fiber': means the food product has at least 2.5 grams fiber per serving.
Not All 'Whole Grains' Created Equal
Just because a bread or bagel says whole wheat doesn't mean it has adequate dietary fiber. In many cases, noted whole wheat products have enriched or bleached wheat or white flour as the main ingredient (meaning the grain used to make flour has been stripped of it's fiber). You should see the words whole listed as part of the first ingredient of the product (e.g. whole-wheat flour) to determine if it is truly a whole grain. If not, consider making another choice.
- Cereals – should contain at least 3-5 grams or more fiber per serving.
- Breads – should contain at least 2 grams or more fiber per serving.
- Crackers – should contain at least 2 grams or more fiber per serving.
- Rice and Pasta – should contain at least 3 grams or more fiber per serving.
Luckily fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans are good sources of fiber and don't require food label reading to make that determination. But because not all foods listed as whole grain contain adequate fiber, it is your duty to become food label savvy.
Fitting Fiber in Checklist
Follow this quick guide when purchasing breads and other grains:
Fitting Fiber in Checklist
Use this as a checklist to ensure you are getting the recommended 25 or more grams of dietary fiber each day. Because most foods contain both the soluble and insoluble fibers, focus on getting adequate levels of all food sources of fiber to reap heart-health benefits.
1. Aim for 4 or more servings of vegetables each day.
- One serving: ½ cup cooked vegetable, 1 cup raw.
- Have a large salad for lunch or dinner.
- Enjoy vegetable-based soups for a change.
- Throw cup-up veggies in a bag for a midday snack.
- Dip vegetables in a low-fat salad dressing.
- Put vegetables into marinara sauce instead of ground meat.
- Have at least one meatless, vegetable–based meal per week.
- Fill half your dinner plate with vegetables each day.
2. Strive for 3 or more servings of fruit each day.
- One serving: medium-sized piece of fruit, 1 cup most melons and berries, 2 Tbsp. raisins, ¼ cup most dried fruits, ½ cup canned fruits.
- Top your favorite cereal with berries or sliced bananas.
- Top whole grain waffles or pancakes with fresh fruit.
- Snack on fresh, canned (in own juice) or dried fruits throughout the day.
- Add a sweet touch to salads by adding raisins, grapes or mandarin oranges.
- Use fruit as a refreshing dessert.
- Throw fruit, nuts and honey on top of nonfat yogurt for a yummy treat.
- Opt for whole fruits instead of juice on most occasions; even juice with pulp contains less fiber than the whole fruit.
3. Consume a minimum of 3 servings of whole grains each day.
- Start the day off right with a bowl of high fiber cereal (cooked or ready-to-eat). Choose barley or oats for optimal cholesterol-reduction.
- Choose brown rice over white.
- Choose whole wheat pasta over white.
- Try a new grain side dish each week like bulgur, barley or buckwheat.
- Remember to choose breads, pita, crackers and bagels containing whole in the first ingredient.
4. Incorporate beans, lentils, nuts or seeds into your daily eating patterns.
- One serving: ¼ cup or 1 ounce peanuts or tree nuts, ½ cup cooked beans or lentils, 2 Tbsp. seeds or peanut butter.
- Toss garbanzo, kidney or navy beans onto a salad.
- Change the pace and add roasted soybeans, walnuts or almonds to salads or stir-fries.
- Enjoy nuts or seeds with yogurt and a dash of honey.
- Replace cooked beans or lentils for meat in your favorite recipe.
- Have bean soup or meatless chili for lunch.
- Create a homemade trail mix of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and wheat cereals.
- Enjoy pureed bean dishes such as hummus or low-fat refried beans for a change in texture.
However you do it, strive to check off at least three of these four great fiber goals each day. Don't forget to drink plenty of fluids (64 ounces for most healthy individuals) to avoid constipation. Increasing your dietary fiber brings you one step closer to improved heart-health. Enjoy the versatility and flavors these foods have to offer.
- View a sample 1,800-calorie high-fiber diet. See just how easy fitting fiber in can be!