If you could take a pill to reduce your risk of dying from heart disease and your risk of developing a stroke, coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer by 15-30 percent, I think almost all of us would do it, unless the pill had severe side effects or was too expensive.
But we don’t need a pill to get those results. How do we do it? Eat more fiber. In many large studies, groups that eat the most fiber get the 15-30 percent reduction in the illnesses we listed above compared to those who eat the least. Plus, side effects are minimal and the cost is relatively low.
How does fiber work? High fiber intake tends to lower weight because high fiber foods are generally bulky and fill us up as we eat them. Lower weight reduces the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and many kinds of cancer.
For colon cancer in particular, fiber tends to speed up transit time through the bowel, decreasing the amount of contact time with stool contents. Recent research has shown that even a few weeks of high fiber intake can change the amounts and kinds of bacteria in the gut and lower biomarkers of cancer risk in the lining of the colon. So, it is more than just speedy transit!
Are the health benefits of eating foods that are naturally high in fiber due to the fiber itself or to other nutrients that are also present in those foods? The correct answer is that those health benefits are due to both. In addition, people who eat fiber-rich foods tend to be more health conscious and have other healthy habits like exercising regularly and avoiding tobacco.
In the United States, the average dietary fiber intake by adult men is 18 grams, 15 grams for adult women. The 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a daily minimum intake of 34 grams for men and 28 grams for women. So, we’re about halfway toward where we should be as far as dietary fiber is concerned. And remember, that amount is what our dietary guidelines say is the minimum!
How do we get more fiber in our diets? Most of our fiber should come from foods that are naturally high in fiber. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds and whole grains fit that bill.
If you are getting the recommended 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables, a serving of legumes and nuts or seeds and three or more servings of whole grains every day, you are probably getting close to the minimum. If not, moving toward that eating pattern is the way to go.
Fiber content in fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds and whole grain products varies widely, so it helps to know a few of the stars in each group as you choose your meals each day.
High fiber fruits include: raspberries (6 grams/serving), whole pears (3 grams) and whole apples with skin (3 grams).
Veggie stars are green peas (8 grams), broccoli (5 grams) and turnip greens (5 grams).
High fiber legumes are lentils (8 grams), black beans (9 grams) and baked beans (9 grams), but most other beans have at least moderate levels of fiber.
Whole grain fiber champs are whole wheat spaghetti (5 grams), bran flakes (up to 20 grams) and quinoa (6 grams).
All serving sizes for foods listed above are a cup (or the whole fruit).
High fiber nuts and seeds are chia seeds (10 grams), almonds (4 grams) and pistachios (3 grams). Their serving size is one ounce.
What about added fiber? Isolated and synthetic fibers are often added to processed foods and they must be included on the ingredients list. Some are added to meet health-conscious consumers’ desire for high fiber foods, others are added as thickening agents or stabilizers. Some of these added fibers may not have all or even some of the benefits of natural fibers.
The FDA has recently reviewed the literature on added fiber and found more than a dozen with at least one of the benefits of natural fibers. The commonly used ones are beta-glucan, cellulose, guar gum, pectin, psyllium husk, inulin and chicory root fiber. Look for one or more of these in the ingredient list of products you buy to add fiber to your diet.
So, try to add as much fiber as you can to your diet in order to reach the recommended daily intake. Your heart and vessels, pancreas and colon (and probably many more of your body parts) will appreciate it.
But don’t choose processed foods on the basis of fiber alone. Read the nutrition label and consider the amount of added sugar and sodium, too much of which can have negative health effects.