Fiber may not be the sexiest nutrient around, but it is one of the most important. Staying regular is far from the only health benefit of this type of carbohydrate, says Tanya Zuckerbrot, M.S., R.D., author of The F-Factor Diet. “Fiber does help prevent constipation, but it also helps protect against heart disease, diabetes and various cancers,” she says. “So adding foods rich in it to your diet is one of the best things you can do to increase your chances for a long, healthy life.” Read on to learn if your diet is lacking and the best way to increase your intake of this dietary powerhouse.
“Many people rely too much on processed foods — and those have been stripped of fiber.”
Facts on Fiber
So how exactly does this nutrient benefit your body? Fiber can decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke by lowering cholesterol, says Zuckerbrot. “Fiber absorbs cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract and removes it from the body before it can reach the bloodstream and clog arteries,” she explains. Consume enough of it and your chance of developing diabetes also drops by 30 percent — because it helps you maintain a healthy weight by stabilizing blood sugar levels, says Zuckerbrot. Fiber can also slash your risk of breast cancer and getting more than 30 grams a day has been shown to lower your risk of colon cancer by 40 percent.
The nutrient promotes clear skin, good sleep and a flat belly (by nixing bloating) and can pump up your energy levels as well, says Zuckerbrot.
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The Right Dosage
Even if you think your diet is nutritious, you likely aren’t consuming enough fiber. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends a daily intake of at least 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Yet the average American takes in a measly nine to 11 grams per day.
“One of the reasons is that many people rely too much on processed foods — and those have been stripped of fiber,” says Zuckerbrot. Get an inadequate amount and you could suffer from constipation, bloating, nausea or constant hunger. Weight gain or dramatic swings up or down in energy after you eat can be signs you need to up your intake too, says California-based nutritionist Michele McRae, M.S., C.N.
The recommended AND guidelines don’t vary depending on your activity level — but if you work out a lot, make sure you’re downing eight to 12 glasses of water daily. If you don’t replenish the liquid you lose through sweat, the fiber you ingest might not have access to enough water to soften it and help it move through the GI tract, warns Zuckerbrot.
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How to Get More
“To get the most bang for your buck, you need to eat a wide variety of fiber-rich foods,” says McRae. She advises consuming both soluble and insoluble fiber. The soluble variety turns into a gel-like substance in your stomach, where it slows digestion (to increase nutrient absorption), removes toxins, and helps you feel full. You can find it in oats, oat bran, peas, beans, apples, carrots and citrus fruit such as oranges. Insoluble fiber soaks up water (to make you feel fuller) and helps the body eliminate waste quickly and efficiently. It’s found in whole-wheat bread and pasta, wheat bran cereals, nuts and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and kale.
Getting your fiber from food is always ideal, says McRae, “but a supplement can help you fill any dietary gaps.” She notes that they’re especially helpful for anyone on a calorie-restricted diet, for pregnant women and for anyone experiencing symptoms of low fiber intake. One McRae recommends trying: Rainbow Light’s Fiber Garden Gummies, which provide four grams of fiber per serving.
Take It Easy
It might seem like a cure-all, but be careful not to go overboard on fiber, warns McRae. “It is possible to take in too much and an excessive amount can decrease the absorption of certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and beta carotene.” If you want to start elevating your intake, ramp it up gradually, suggests Zuckerbrot, as increasing the amount you consume too quickly can cause cramping, bloating and diarrhea. “The good news is that within a few days, your body will become accustomed to the increased intake and the symptoms will stop,” she says. And within weeks, you can begin reaping the healthy benefits.