If you’re like most Americans, you’re not getting enough of one vital nutrient.
by Debbie Koenig
This article was originally published in Sharecare.
What if a single nutrient could:
- lower your risk of death over time by 15 to 30 percent
- lower cholesterol and blood pressure
- help you maintain a healthy weight
- reduce odds of developing diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers
According to a new review, eating enough fiber—the humble roughage that passes through you undigested—may do all that and more.
The research, published in The Lancet, looked at data from 185 prospective studies and 58 clinical trials with over 4,600 participants. A clear link emerged between how much fiber participants ate and their health. Those who took in between 25 and 29 grams a day showed greater benefits, but it is suggested that even higher intakes of fiber could produce healthier outcomes.
Funny thing about fiber: It has a multitude of both direct and indirect health benefits, says Robert Breakey, MD, head of IHA’s Family Medicine Division, part of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Foods that contain fiber have direct benefits like an increased transit time and nourishing our microbiome. Fiber is also indicative of unprocessed plant-based foods that have a host of other beneficial nutrients like antioxidants, high quality plant proteins, and phytonutrients.
Fiber only appears in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans, the very stuff stressed by the Dietary Guidelines. “Fiber is a marker for good healthy foods,” Dr. Breakey says. “People who eat higher fiber do better because of what comes with it.” Fiber also keeps you feeling full, which may help you to eat less and avoid carrying excess weight.
But fiber doesn’t just bring along all those powerful nutrients. While it’s traveling through your body, fiber feeds your gut microbiome, home to upwards of 30 trillion microorganisms that nourish the colon, eliminate toxins, produce nutrients, balance hormones, lower inflammation and support your immune system. If you don’t feed the microbiome properly, harmful bacteria grow, which can lead to a variety of illnesses. “We say a pregnant woman is eating for two,” says Breakey, “but we should really think that each of us is eating for 30 trillion and one.”
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, with most plant-based foods containing some of each. The soluble kind, which dissolves in water, keeps your body from fully absorbing dietary fat and cholesterol—which can help lower your “bad” cholesterol count. It also helps you digest food more slowly, which evens out your blood sugar levels.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, feeds the bacteria that make up the bulk of your stool, which keeps things moving through your digestive system.
Fiber in your diet
The recommended daily intake of fiber for adults 50 years or younger is 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women. It’s advised that men over 50 try to eat 30 grams of fiber, while women over 50 should take in 21 grams
If you’re anything like the typical American, your fiber intake covers around half that amount. That’s because processed foods make up more than half of our diets. On average, more heavily processed the food, the less fiber it contains.
If you’re averaging 15 grams of fiber a day, doubling that may seem daunting. Breakey advises starting slowly. “Even moving from the standard American diet to eating an extra serving of vegetables a day is progress,” he says. “Every time you eat, it’s an opportunity to eat something better.”
Adding too much fiber too quickly may cause a few unpleasant side effects like bloating, flatulence or gas. If you experience any of these, add fiber-rich foods to your diet slowly and be sure to drink plenty of water.
Once your body gets used it, there’s no need to stop at 25 grams per day. The study published in The Lancet found that higher fiber intake is associated with greater protection against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. Breakey personally recommends eating even more fiber—at least 60 grams per day. “Ultimately your goal should be to have fiber in every bite,” he says.
That doesn’t mean you should turn to a supplement. Breakey says that a supplement would only provide fiber from a single plant product. It won’t bring with it the nutrients you get from eating a variety of whole, fiber-rich foods. He advises reserving fiber supplements for the occasional bout of constipation, which is also a sign of a diet that’s too low in fiber. Once the supplement helps clear things out, aim to add more whole foods that are naturally high in fiber.
A high-fiber diet plan
Once you’ve started to add more unprocessed, plant-based foods to your diet, bringing your total over 25 grams a day isn’t as tough as it sounds. It can be as simple as starting to add a vegetable or fruit to every meal.
Here’s what a sample high-fiber day might look like:
- 1 cup shredded wheat cereal (with no sugar) (6.1 grams)
- Milk (0 grams)
- Coffee or tea (0 grams)
- 1/2 cup raspberries (4 grams)
TOTAL: 10.1 grams
Sandwich made with:
- 2 slices 100% whole wheat or grain bread (3.8 grams)
- 1/2 cup avocado (4.9 grams)
- 1/2 cup tomato (1.1 grams)
- Cheese or turkey (0 grams)
- Banana (3.1 grams)
TOTAL: 12.9 grams
- 1 ounce almonds (3.5 grams)
- 1/2 cup dried apricots (4.5 grams)
TOTAL: 8 grams
- Chicken (0 grams)
- 1 cup roasted broccoli (5.1 grams)
- 1 medium baked potato with skin (4 grams)
- Butter or sour cream (0 grams)
- 1 slice store-bought cherry pie (1 gram)
TOTAL: 10.1 grams
DAILY TOTAL: 41 grams
Once you achieve this level, continue to replace any food lacking fiber with whole plant-based alternatives to increase the amount of fiber you eat per day.
What about fruit?
Fruit is high in sugar, and you may have heard that nutritionally speaking, sugar is the bad guy. That’s not necessarily wrong—but added sugar is the real culprit. As you can see in the daily menu above, fruit can provide a significant amount of fiber to your day.
“The difference is that this is a natural form of sugar that comes along with everything else nature provided in that fruit,” says Breakey. “The fiber, the complex carbohydrates, the proteins, even small amounts of fat—everything else in that strawberry or apple slows the digestion of the sugar and this makes whole fruits a very healthy food.”
If you’re doing Keto (or Paleo, or Atkins…)
Low-carb diets have become extremely popular over the last few decades as a way to lose weight. Carbohydrates come in three main types: sugars, starches and fiber. By now you may recognize the problem: Because fiber is a type of carbohydrate, low-carb diets can make it very difficult for you to eat enough to provide all those benefits and nearly impossible if you are striving for a high amount of fiber intake.
While these plans restrict your total carbohydrate intake (and may even banish whole grains and beans completely), they do allow you to eat certain vegetables and fruits, as well as nuts. Still, for those seeking to increase their fiber intake, these diets likely will not match your health goals. Weight loss, blood sugar control and vitality may be better achieved with a healthy, whole foods-based diet.