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May, 2008

Get Your Fiber Facts

By Christina Pirello

Get Your Fiber Facts

Although the American Cancer Association, American Heart Association, and just about every other major health organization recommend 20 to 40 grams of fiber daily, on average, Americans eat only about half this amount. It's really too bad we are not getting our fill of fiber. Since the 1960s, studies have suggested a link between the high fiber diet of rural peoples in non-industrialized countries and a low incidence of many diseases common to Western countries. Consuming a healthy dose of fiber daily may reduce your risk of constipation, diverticulosis, colon and rectal cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer. Let's take a closer look at fiber and some of its benefits.

What is Fiber?

Fiber is a name given to a wide variety of substances with different effects on the body. Yet all fiber has this in common: It comes from the parts of plants that cannot be digested by enzymes in the human intestinal tract. Fiber is divided into two categories: Those soluble in water and those that are insoluble.

A Few Fiber Benefits

  • Fiber Lowers Cholesterol/Fights Heart Disease: Studies suggest soluble fiber (like in oatmeal and oat bran) helps reduce total blood cholesterol by lowering the "bad" LDL cholesterol. More than likely, a diet high in fiber--combined with a low intake of saturated fat and a healthy weight--works best to lower your risk of heart disease.
  • Fiber Prevents Cancer: Research suggests that a diet high in insoluble fiber may inhibit the growth of colon and rectal polyps (which often enlarge and become malignant). Insoluble fiber may work by moving foods faster through the system, exposing the body to fewer carcinogens, or by diluting the carcinogens. Researchers also theorize that insoluble fiber may protect against breast cancer by reducing estrogen levels. However, when people eat high fiber diets, they also tend to eat less fat; a high fat diet may increase your overall risk of cancer.
  • Fiber Fights Diabetes: By 2007, scientists predict 1 in 10 Americans will develop Type 2 diabetes--currently the fourth leading cause of disease-related death in the U.S. A 1997 Harvard study reported that women with diets rich in whole grains and other slowly digested, fiber-filled foods have a much lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Other studies suggest soluble fiber improves control of blood sugar and reduces the need for insulin and other medications in people with diabetes. Insoluble fiber appears to delay the emptying of the stomach and absorption of glucose in the intestine.

Filling Up on Fiber

You might think getting your daily fill of fiber means eating oat bran morning, noon, and night. But that is simply not true. Fiber is abundant in a variety of foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cereals, and legumes. As you gradually increase your fiber intake, be sure to drink plenty of liquids for best results. Then, to start, try topping a fiber-rich cereal with berries. Snack on an apple, pear, or orange. Eat beans for lunch or dinner. To put you well within reach of your goal, nibble on a 3.5 oz. serving of popcorn; when you finish, you'll have eaten a healthy 15 grams of fiber!

As you prepare to bulk up on fiber, stock up on the following high-fiber foods:

  • Vegetables: Winter Squash, Potatoes, Broccoli, Swiss Chard, Artichokes
  • Fruits: Berries, Dried Figs, Apples, Pears, Oranges
  • Whole Grains: Barley, Couscous, Tabbouleh, Basmati Rice and Wild Rice.
Sources:
Health Magazine's 50 Super Foods, August 1998. Earl Mindell's Food as Medicine (Simon & Schuster: New York), 1994. Margen, Sheldon, M.D. et al. The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition. (Health Letter Associates: New York), 1992.