You’ve likely heard that fiber is an essential part of your diet. But what exactly is it, and why is it so important? If you’re looking to boost your fiber consumption in an effort to eat a healthier diet, learn more about why you need this helpful carbohydrate — and what you can start eating in your quest to consume more of it.
What Is Dietary Fiber?
Dietary fiber is an edible component of many of the plant foods and other carbohydrates you eat. It’s safe to consume, and your body can process and eliminate it as a waste product. However, your body can’t actually digest the fiber. This means your body can’t break the fiber down or draw and absorb nutrients out of and from it the way it does with other things you eat. The fiber remains mostly intact as it passes through your digestive tract.
There are two different types of fiber found in the fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes you eat. Soluble fiber attracts water, dissolving in it and taking on a gel-like consistency. This fiber slows down your digestion and can keep you feeling fuller longer. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water or other fluids in your digestive tract, so it stays mostly in the same form it was when you ate it. This fiber helps push other material through your stomach, intestines and colon quickly and can add bulk to your stool.
Why Is Dietary Fiber Important?
It might not sound right to eat something that your body can’t absorb nutrients from, but fiber has quite a few health benefits that may help reduce your risk of developing certain conditions. It aids digestion, helping your body process food more efficiently. Because fiber helps you feel full, it can also cause you to eat less and feel satiated longer. This can help you reach a healthy weight because the filling nature of high-fiber foods can keep you from consuming extra calories.
Fiber may also lower your risk of developing heart disease. Over the years, studies have consistently shown a link between higher fiber consumption and a decrease in heart disease. Several Harvard studies even demonstrated that a high total daily fiber intake was linked to a 40% lower risk of coronary heart disease, which develops when coronary arteries become too narrow. Other heart-healthy benefits of eating a high-fiber diet include lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reducing inflammation in your body.
Constipation is one of the most common digestion-related issues in the United States. If you’re constipated, eating more fiber can help you relieve yourself. Fiber may also prevent constipation when you eat it regularly.
If you have type 2 diabetes, fiber can help you keep your blood sugar levels more even. Soluble fiber in particular slows the rate at which your body processes sugar and other refined carbohydrates, preventing blood sugar spikes. A Harvard study found that a diet high in cereal fiber specifically was linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Cereal fiber comes from cereal grains like wheat, millet, rice, oats and barley.
High-fiber Foods to Eat
It’s easier to increase your fiber intake when you know which high-fiber foods to eat. Fruits and vegetables are healthful options that can form the basis of your new, fiber-rich snacks and meals, while whole grains make excellent options for side and main dishes.
Fruits offer an easy way to get more fiber into your diet. Grab a handful of raspberries or strawberries as a snack with some yogurt, or enjoy some pear or apple slices with peanut butter. A morning smoothie with your favorite fruit and some flaxseed also offers a great way to get lots of fiber in one meal. Other tasty options include mango, avocado, blackberries and figs. Keep in mind that lots of fruits’ fiber is typically found in their skin, so leave it on whenever possible to get the most benefits.
Like fruits, vegetables are also versatile and packed with fiber. Whether fresh with dip or roasted with garlic, broccoli is always a good option, offering about 15% of your daily fiber intake in one 150-gram serving. Carrots, beets and artichokes are also among the vegetable options with the highest fiber content. Look for leafy greens, too, like kale, spinach and chard, to use in salads or sauteed when you’re looking for high-fiber meal sides.
Whole grains are excellent sources of fiber, but it’s important to check nutrition labels to be sure the ingredients are indeed whole grain. A whole grain is one that’s still in its full form; sometimes, food producers separate certain grain components from one another to change how they taste or function as ingredients in other dishes. As far as grains go, whole grains have the most fiber. Try cooking with the whole grains themselves, including rice, wheat, millet, barley, oats, rye and corn. Or, look for whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas to eat in places of refined versions.
Legumes are plants that produce pods with seeds inside. Common legumes include peas, beans, lentils and peanuts. Add legumes to soups and salads, or try a serving of lightly seasoned legumes alongside whole wheat pasta salad with colorful, fresh veggies added. Peanuts and other nuts, which are also high in fiber, make great additions to homemade trail mix or blended into nut butters that you can spread on whole-wheat toast.
Boosting Your Consumption Gradually
Now that you know what fiber-rich foods to eat and why, you may want to start adding more fiber to your diet. Be sure that you increase your intake slowly to give your body time to adjust to processing the higher fiber content of what you’re eating. If you start eating large amounts of fiber immediately, you might experience bloating, gas or abdominal cramping. Aim to work your way up to the recommended 25–38 daily grams of fiber over a few weeks so your digestive system can get used to the extra fiber.
Should You Use a Fiber Supplement?
If you’re thinking about adding more fiber to your diet, you may be wondering if you should use a commercially available fiber supplement. Generally, it’s best to get fiber from the foods you eat instead of from powders or vitamin capsules. Mayo Clinic notes that whole foods provide a wide variety of fibers, vitamins, minerals and other healthful nutrients, and that variety often isn’t present in commercially prepared supplements. Before taking fiber supplements, you might consider eating foods that are fiber fortified, meaning they have some extra fiber added. If you’re still not seeing the health results you’re aiming for, such as less-frequent constipation, talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking fiber supplements.