Nutrition Series, Part 4: The Importance of Fiber
Despite all of the attention on supplements, most Americans are not getting enough fiber! Are you?
In the world of health, fitness, and bodybuilding, supplements get a lot of attention. From protein to vitamins, to amino acids, to creatine…the list goes on. It’s easy to down a protein drink, take vitamins, or mix a weight gainer into your shaker, voila!, you’re on your way! For many busy folks, athletes or not, a RTD (ready-to-drink) option that fits into your macronutrient goals is more common than ever before. It is a convenient and tasty way to go about our day, and there is a place for a well-timed protein shake. Although I’m exaggerating a bit about drinking our meals, there is one important nutrient that is missing in the average American’s diet: fiber.
According to the National Academy of Medicine, about 5% of men and 9% of women are meeting the daily fiber recommendation.
For many Americans, a fast food option or meal replacement shake has become the norm, and vegetables don’t tend to make the list of important “to-do’s” for our busy day.
What is Fiber?
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot break down and absorb. Other than getting chewed into smaller pieces, fiber remains intact as it moves through our digestive system. Fiber is found in plants, which means you must put down the chicken and pick up the asparagus in order to add fiber to your diet.
There are many different ways to get fiber into your diet, and the benefits will go beyond keeping you, *ahem*, regular.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics puts it this way… “fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains all contain dietary fiber. Although the body can't use fiber efficiently for fuel, it's an important part of a healthy eating plan and helps with a variety of health conditions.”
Studies are showing more and more benefits of having enough fiber in the diet. Whether to help in the management of existing chronic conditions, or the prevention of them, the list seems ever-expanding. A compilation of fiber’s benefits include:
1. Creates a Happy and Diverse Microbiome in your GI tract
Fiber becomes a fuel source for the beneficial bacteria in our gut.
Getting plenty of fiber, as well as a variety of types of it, means you're passing along plenty of food for these good, healthy gut bacteria to thrive on.
2. Keeps Nature Calling on Time…
Diarrhea and constipation can both be caused by a lack of fiber in the diet.
Fiber can help prevent both of these uncomfortable issues by keeping your bowel habits regular.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the types of fiber can be categorized as follows:
- Soluble fiber. This type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. It can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, and psyllium.
- Insoluble fiber. This type of fiber promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans, and vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans, and potatoes, are good sources of insoluble fiber.
3. Feel Fuller Longer
Fiber takes longer to move through the stomach and intestines than other nutrients, so it has the ability to keep you feeling full. Soluble fiber in particular absorbs water, which in turn, creates a type of expansion in your GI tract, thus helping you feel satisfied.
Feeling full between meals and snacks may not directly lead to weight loss, but it can help reduce the desire to snack or drink sweet, calorie-laden beverages, in between meals.
4. Helps to Lower High Blood Pressure
Numerous studies have now shown that eating fiber can reduce blood pressure in those who have high blood pressure.
With almost half of American adults suffering from elevated or high blood pressure, a condition that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, the cardiovascular benefits of fiber shouldn't be overlooked.1
5. Helps to Balance Cholesterol Levels
One particular type of fiber — viscous fiber — has a binding quality to it that can help trap excess bile and cholesterol in our GI tract, which our body then eliminates when we go to the bathroom.
Some forms of soluble fiber are also helpful in lowering LDL cholesterol, the type of cholesterol that can collect in the blood vessels and lead to atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries that affects blood flow. Oatmeal in particular is a great source of soluble fiber.1
6. Prevention of Blood Glucose Spikes
Soluble fiber also helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Eating soluble fiber with the rest of a meal slows down the rate at which glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream, helping to prevent blood sugar spikes. Improving blood glucose control and regulating the highs and lows can help prevent type 2 Diabetes.
7. Linked to Lower Risk of Several Diseases
Meeting the recommended daily fiber intake is proven to help with several different areas of disease prevention.
Getting enough fiber can help reduce the risk of:
- Heart disease- still the #1 cause of death in Americans
- Type 2 diabetes
- Colorectal cancer
So, how much fiber should you have a day?
As mentioned, the vast majority of us don't eat enough fiber. But...how much you should be aiming for each day depends on a few factors.
The National Academy of Medicine recommends getting the following amount of fiber per day:
- Women 50 years of age and younger: 25 grams
- Women 51 years of age and older: 21 grams
- Men 50 years of age and younger: 38 grams
- Men 51 years of age and older: 30 grams1
Is there such a thing as too much fiber?
Getting too much fiber can irritate the GI tract, causing:
Fiber needs water in the GI tract to move through easily, so as you are increasing your fiber intake, you must also increase your water intake. Take it easy, your first few days adding fiber to one meal at a time. See how your body responds and then increase to the next meal.
So are you ready to add fiber to your diet? Here is a tasty recipe from Eatright.org to help you start meeting your fiber goals…
Banana Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies
3 bananas, peeled
¼ cup coconut oil, melted
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups rolled oats (gluten-free, if needed)
1 tablespoon golden flax meal
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup mini chocolate chips
Before you begin: Wash your hands.
- Preheat oven to 350°F (176°C).
- Place bananas in a medium bowl and mash well. Add remaining ingredients to the mashed banana; stir well.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Press 2 tablespoons mixture into a 2 ½-inch cookie cutter. Remove the cutter to create a round shape. Repeat with the remaining mixture.
- Bake for 22 to 25 minutes or until cookies are golden and set. Allow to cool before serving.
Serving size: 1 cookie
Calories: 112, Total Fat: 6g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 0g; Sodium: 84mg; Total Carbohydrate: 15g; Dietary Fiber: 2g; Protein: 2g; Potassium 147mg; Phosphorus 59mg.
About the Author
Jessie Gall, MS, RD, LD
Jess is a Metro-Atlanta-based dietitian in the state of Georgia with 8 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian in the hospital setting, as well as corporate wellness events, and individual counseling. She received her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from Georgia State University and is a Licensed and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Jess enjoys helping her patients have the “lightbulb moments” in their nutrition care and recommendations. Her “food philosophy” is that food is functional and fun! Eating for health does not have to be boring or tasteless. All things in moderation make for a more enjoyable, and healthy relationship with food. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, but there are research-based recommendations, and she enjoys helping each patient/client find what works for their lifestyle, goals, and needs. Jess is also an NPC Bikini division competitor, NASM Certified Nutrition Coach, and mother of twin boys.