Most health-conscious women know high fiber foods are an important part of a healthy diet, but few of us understand exactly what fiber is or why it is important for our microbiomes (more on that to come!). “I think people may know they need fiber to help keep their bowels regular, but I don’t think they recognize the importance of fiber for maintaining a healthy microbiome,” says Danica Cowan, a registered dietitian in San Francisco, California. “And just about every day new studies are coming out about how important our microbiome is to just about every part of our bodies.” Of course, if you start each morning with two eggs, sprouted wheat toast, and an avocado—and your mid-morning snack is usually a smoothie packed with berries, spinach, and yogurt—you’re probably pretty conscious about your diet. You might even be able to tell your physician or trainer exactly how many calories and how many grams of protein you’re consuming daily. But if anyone asks how much fiber you’re ingesting each day and why, Cowan and other healthcare professionals realize you might be stumped. Unlike fats, carbs, or calories, which many of of us are extremely conscious of, there’s a lot to learn about the daily target for fiber consumption and how fiber is even measured. We’ve got the memo that fiber helps keep you regular (if you get my drift) and that it’s found in fruits and vegetables, but other than that, fiber is a mystery to most. However, if fiber really is as essential to a well-rounded diet as experts like Cowan assert, it’s important to understand the food group the way we’ve educated ourselves about fats and proteins. If you want to make sure you’re getting the most from your diet, it’s time to educate yourself about fiber and high-fiber foods. Here’s everything you need to know:
What is fiber, anyway?
Let’s start with the basics: What is fiber? It turns out dietary fiber is a macronutrient—one of the parts of the foods we consume—just like protein and fat. Fiber is a carbohydrate, but not the kind you want to avoid. Fiber is actually the part of plants that your body can’t digest. That may sound like a bad thing, but having indigestible fiber in your system is really important. As fiber passes through your stomach, intestines, and colon intact, it keeps your whole system functioning at an optimal level. Unsurprisingly, since it’s a plant part, fiber is found most in fruits and vegetables. There are two different types of fiber, both of which have important health benefits. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forming a gel-like substance in your gut that can have huge health advantages according to Natalie Allen, a dietitian and professor in the Biomedical Sciences Department at Missouri State University (MSU). “Soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol and keep the heart healthy,” Allen says, noting that soluble fiber can be found in oats and lentils. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not break down in water. It passes through the body undigested and can help with constipation and ensuring regular bowel movements. Insoluble fiber is found in wheat products like bread and cereal. Together, Allen says, soluble and insoluble fiber keep your whole body functioning efficiently. “Soluble and insoluble fiber work together to help maintain a healthy GI system and keep waste products moving along through the body and to the colon,” she says. Tufts University’s OpenCourseWare provides an extremely user-friendly resource that shows just how much of each type of fiber is in commonly eaten fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grain products.
What are the health benefits of fiber?
In a way, it’s more telling to consider what areas of health fiber doesn’t affect. Although fiber is most readily associated with bowel movements, it turns out fiber has a whole host of health benefits that often go unrecognized by the general public. In 2013, the journal Nutrients published a report that articulated the amazing array of fiber’s health benefits. Fiber can stabilize blood sugar, improve cardiovascular health, and help control appetite. It’s no surprise that higher fiber intake is associated with lower body weight. Fiber has also been shown to improve immune system functioning, even in infants.
The “New” Health Benefit of Fiber
Scientists and dietitians have known for a long time that fiber is essential to the digestive system. However, there’s a newly discovered benefit to fiber that experts are just beginning to understand. If you’ve been paying attention to health and wellness news over the past few years, you’ve almost certainly heard of the human microbiome—that enigmatic term Cowan referenced in her thinking on fiber’s importance. According to a 2012 study published in Nutrition Reviews, there are up to 100 trillion bacteria living in and on our bodies, especially in our guts, that comprise our microbiomes. That may sound gross, but these bacteria seem to be very important for a number of health reasons. Scientists are just beginning to study and understand the microbiome, but many experts, including the study’s authors, are optimistic about the health benefits that will come from a better understanding of how microorganisms and bacteria affect our bodies. And it turns out that fiber is an essential food source for the tiny critters living in our digestive tracts. Fiber contains prebiotics, which are indigestible plant parts that make great food for bacteria. A 2016 study published in Nutrients found that the prebiotics in fiber can improve gut health, which in turn boosts overall health. A 2013 paper also published in Nutrients showed that even types of fiber that are not prebiotics can help balance the acidity of the digestive tract, which helps bacteria thrive.
How do I know if I’m getting enough fiber?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults eat about 25 grams of fiber a day based on a 2,000 calorie diet. To give you an idea of what that looks like, an apple has about 4 grams of fiber, and half a cup of peanuts has about 6 grams. One slice of whole-wheat toast has just under 2 grams of fiber. Many foods that modern Americans love—including meat, processed foods, and refined sugar—contain little or no fiber. Compared with our ancestors, we’re consuming much less fiber even when we’re focused on health. “When you compare the modern diet, even a very healthy one, to a traditional hunter–gatherer diet, even healthy modern diets are lacking in fiber,” says Cowan. So, how do you know if you’re getting enough? If you’re suffering from constipation, that can be a sign that you need more fiber in your diet, says Autumn Ehsaei, a registered dietitian in Cary, North Carolina. Your blood sugar level can also be telling. “Fiber can also help regulate blood sugar in the body, and while higher blood glucose levels are not necessarily an indicator that you need more fiber, those things are often seen concurrently,” Ehsaei says. “Increasing fiber in this situation can quite often be beneficial.” Most Americans consume too little fiber. But it’s also possible to consume too much fiber, which can lead to diarrhea, bloating, and an upset stomach, Allen, the MSU professor, tells HealthyWay. She recommends incorporating under 40 grams of fiber in your diet each day for optimal health. An upset stomach is a good indication that you might be eating too much fiber for your body.
The Key to Increasing Your Fiber Intake
If you’re trying to increase your fiber intake, you’ll want to make changes slowly. Suddenly upping your fiber intake with no preparation can lead to abdominal discomfort since it will come as a shock to your digestive system. “The biggest issue that I see for people when it comes to introducing fiber into the diet is that they might do too much too fast, and that can cause some serious GI distress,” Ehsaei says. “The key to fiber is to slowly and steadily increase your intake until you get to your goal.” Start by introducing a few extra grams of fiber at each meal. While you’re increasing your fiber it’s also important to drink more water since that helps your body reap the benefits, especially of soluble fiber. If you’re trying to get more fiber in your diet, it may be tempting to turn to fiber supplements. While that is a valid option, experts say that it’s better to get fiber right from the source: Plant-based foods have other health benefits as well. “Fiber supplements can be helpful in getting people to reach their fiber goals and can be a nice way to slowly introduce the body to getting more fiber in general, but I always encourage my clients to get their fiber from whole foods as much as possible,” Ehsaei says. “The supplements will not have all of the other beneficial nutrients that the food can provide. Supplements are okay, but aim to get as much through the diet as possible, too.”
Getting Fiber Into Every Meal
If you’re gearing up to meet the AHA’s fiber guidelines, it’s a good idea to have a plan. If you aim for about 25 grams of fiber daily and have three meals and two snacks, you’ll want to consume about 5 grams of fiber each time you eat. That includes breakfast, where the goal of incorporating fiber may come way behind getting to work on time. “My main goal is to try to get a fruit, vegetable, or whole grain at every meal so I can be sure that there is some fiber on the plate,” Ehsaei says. For breakfast, Ehsaei eats oatmeal, a great source of soluble fiber, which can help stabilize blood sugar and keep you feeling full for longer. To spice it up, she recommends adding almond butter, crumbled walnuts, cinnamon, turmeric, flax seeds, hemp hearts, or fruit into your oatmeal. “This is a filling, fiber-filled, plant-based breakfast that holds me all morning on most days,” Ehsaei says. For lunch, a salad loaded with vegetables might seem like a great choice, and it’s true that all those greens are great sources of fiber. However, there are plenty of other options for a fiber-rich lunch. Lentils and beans are packed with fiber and can be made into soup, chili, or other favorite dishes that will boost your fiber intake without requiring you to compromise on taste. “Keep beans and lentils easily accessible to add into entrees as an extra source of easy fiber,” Ehsaei recommends. Allen agrees. “One of the best sources of fiber is beans,” she says. When you’re making dinner, be sure to get plenty of fiber on the plate in the form of whole grains, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. This will help you stave off late-night snacking and keep your digestive system running smoothly through the night.
Reach for fiber-friendly snacks.
Snack time is often when even the most fiber-conscious people fail to make the healthiest choices. When you’re in a rush or eating on the go, it’s easy to reach for a processed snack or something portable like a cheese stick or yogurt. However, incorporating fiber into your snacks is important if you’re going to reach your daily fiber goals. Nuts are a great source of fiber and are equally easy to snack on. Half a cup of almonds has more than 6 grams of fiber. Toss in some raisins (also fiber friendly) and a little bit of chocolate for taste, and you’ll have a sweet treat that keeps you on track in terms of your fiber goals. Homemade sweet potato fries or sweet potato chips are also a good source of fiber and a snack that feels a little indulgent. If you’re trying to get your kids to eat more fiber, guide them toward fiber-filled snacks like fruits and vegetables or even bean dip. The more exciting you make it, the more likely they are to love getting their daily dose of fiber. It’s worth noting that kids need lots of fiber to keep their bodies healthy. The American Heart Association recommends toddlers get 19 grams of fiber a day, whereas teens needs between 26 and 38 grams of fiber a day. That’s a lot, so help your kids and teens incorporate fiber into their diets whenever you get a chance. You’ve probably spent at least some time counting carbs or avoiding fat, but now it’s time to focus on a nutrient that you want in your diet for all the right reasons. Incorporating fiber can be simple and fun, and it will have a big impact on your health and wellness.