By Avera Sacred Heart Hospital
Sara German, RD, LN
What pictures come to mind when you hear the word, “fiber”? A cow munching on hay? A bowl of flavored cardboard masquerading as breakfast cereal? A stalk of celery? Regardless of what you think about it, fiber is an important part of a healthy diet and most people don’t get enough.
So what is fiber? Fiber is the stuff in plants that our bodies are unable to digest – you won’t find it in dairy products, meat or eggs. All plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes) contain fiber in various amounts. The Institute of Medication recommends that most women eat 25 grams of fiber and men eat 38 grams each day, but on average people eat closer to 15-20 grams of fiber each day. If fiber is in so many foods, why aren’t we eating more of it?
One reason is that most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Getting the recommend amount (for most adults, 2-1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit) would go a long way toward meeting fiber requirements.
Another reason is that many grains are processed to remove the fiber. All-purpose flour and regular pasta are made from wheat that has been stripped of its bran (the outer layer), which contains most of the fiber. Similarly, white rice is made from brown rice that has had its bran removed. Most processed grain products you buy at a grocery store – bread, cereals, rolls, pastries, sweets – will be made with processed flour. Because that’s what most of us are used to, products made with whole wheat flour take some getting used to.
Why is fiber important? You may have heard that fiber helps keep a person “regular” – and it does. It can help lower cholesterol. It feeds the good bacteria in your gut, which in turn provide your body with enhanced immunity and keep the bad bacteria from taking over. It makes your gut healthier and decreases your risk for colon cancer. Additionally, because fiber is found in many healthy, nutrient-rich foods, if you are getting enough fiber you will probably be getting a lot of other beneficial nutrients, too.
Below are some ways to get more fiber in your diet. One word of caution if you typically don’t eat many fiber-containing foods: go slow. If you rapidly increase your fiber intake, your body will not be able to adjust fast enough and you may actually experience constipation. Try increasing your daily fiber intake by 3-5 grams each week, and make sure to drink lots of water!
- Start your morning right with a high-fiber cereal. On the nutrition label, look at “total fiber” under the “total carbohydrates” section. Aim for a cereal with at least 5 grams of fiber.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables – and stick with whole produce (juice doesn’t contain fiber).
- Choose whole grains. Common foods that naturally are whole grains include oatmeal and popcorn. If you are buying bread, choose a loaf with “whole wheat” as the first ingredient in the ingredients list. Try whole grain pasta and brown rice. If you like to bake, whole wheat flour can usually be substituted for half of the all-purpose flour in a recipe.
- Eat beans! They may have a bad reputation for being a “musical fruit,” but they are nutrient powerhouses and great sources of fiber.
- Nuts are good sources of fiber, too. They are also high in calories, so limit yourself to a small handful (instead of the whole container).