Most adults aren’t even getting half of the fiber the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends.
That might not seem very alarming because fiber is best known for keeping people regular, but it offers a number of benefits and fiber is a key to keeping your heart healthy.
How much dietary fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, should you be eating each day? The FDA recommends adults eat between 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day, but most of us aren’t even eating 10 grams.
Dietary fiber is the part of plant foods the body can’t digest or absorb. Fiber doesn’t get digested like fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Fiber passes through the body relatively intact to promote movement in the digestive system while binding to elements like cholesterol to help eliminate them from the body.
Fiber is typically classified as soluble or insoluble:
Soluble Fiber: Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material that helps lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. You can find soluble fiber in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium.
Insoluble Fiber: Insoluble fiber helps keep material moving through the digestive system. It helps those with constipation or irregular bowel movements. You can find insoluble fiber in whole wheat, wheat bran, nuts, beans and vegetables.
To get both soluble and insoluble fiber, eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and whole grains.
Studies have shown fiber intake has a direct impact on reducing the risk for heart disease.
A study published in the American College of Cardiology following 39,876 women for six years found those women eating an average of 26.3 grams of fiber had a lower risk for developing heart disease and having a heart attack than those women who ate less than that.
“When it comes to heart health, the importance of fiber in your diet cannot be overstated,” says Kathy Kastan, president of WomenHeart, the National Coalition for Women With Heart Disease and the coauthor of Women Heart’s All Heart Family Cookbook.
Helps lower cholesterol levels – Soluble fiber has been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol and overall cholesterol by trapping the bad cholesterol and helping it pass through the body. Oats, bran, barley, oranges, apples, carrots and beans are all great sources of soluble fiber and help prevent cholesterol, fat and sugars from being absorbed by the body.
Reduces Blood Pressure – In 2005, researchers looked at 25 different studies on the effects of fiber on blood pressure. A high-fiber diet was linked to a significant reduction in blood pressure levels in men and women with hypertension.
“We performed a comprehensive analysis of data from 25 clinical trials and all the data pointed to one strong conclusion — adding fiber to a person’s diet has a healthy effect on their blood pressure,” says researcher Seamus Whelton, a medical student at the Tulane University School of Medicine, in a news release. “Analyzing a large number of studies lends strength to the conclusions of clinical trials that involved too few participants to show an effect of dietary fiber on blood pressure.”
Results from the study showed a significant reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
“Our results suggest that increased dietary fiber consumption may provide a safe and acceptable means to reduce blood pressure in patients with hypertension,” wrote Whelton and colleagues. “Increased intake of fruits and vegetables may provide the best means to supplement dietary fiber intake because of its potential beneficial health effects.”
Helps control blood sugar levels – For those with diabetes, eating fiber is extremely important because of the role it plays in controlling blood sugar levels. Fiber doesn’t raise blood sugar like carbohydrates and still helps you feel full. By eating the recommended amount of fiber, you’ll be able to slow the absorption of sugar to improve your blood sugar levels.
Aids with Weight Management – Maintaining a healthy weight is linked with fighting heart disease. Because soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance, it helps you feel full faster and stay full longer to help reduce the chances of overeating and gaining weight.
The Institute of Medicine, an organization that offers science-based recommendations on medicine and health, recommends men age 50 or younger eat 38 grams of fiber and women age 50 and younger eat 25 grams of fiber a day. It recommends men age 51 and older eat 30 grams of fiber and women age 51 and older eat 21 grams of fiber.
If you’re low on fiber, it’s important to start making the right dietary choices to increase your fiber intake. Good sources of fiber include:
Refined foods and processed foods including canned fruits and vegetables, pulp-free juices, white bread and pasta and non-whole-grain cereals are not good sources of fiber.
Try these ideas to increase the amount of fiber you eat each day.
Start Off Your Day the Right Way – You can easily add whole grains at breakfast time. Choose a high-fiber breakfast cereal or something with “whole grain,” “bran,” or “fiber” in the name. You can also try adding a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran to any cereal.
Transition to Whole Grains – If you’re not used to eating whole grains, begin by simply changing out half of your white breads and other processed grains. If you’re used to cooking with white flour, switch to half and half flour initially. You can also try switching to brown rice, wild rice, barley, whole-wheat pasta or bulgur wheat.
Add to Baked Goods – You can begin baking your baked goods with whole-grain flour as half or all of the flour you use. You can also turn those chocolate chip cookies into oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Oats, crushed bran and wheat bran can enhance your fiber and bake easily in cookies, muffins, cakes and even something like waffles or pancakes.
Eat your Legumes with Dinner – Try adding beans, peas or lentils to your meals. Adding kidney beans to soups or salads can quickly increase your fiber content.
Add a Fruit or Vegetable to Each Meal – Start increasing your fruit and vegetable consumption by just adding one more fruit or vegetable to each meal.
Snack the Right Way – Instead of choosing chips or sweets as your snack, eat raw vegetables, fruit or something like low-fat popcorn to increase your fiber content.
Eating more fiber is a quick way to improve your heart health and can quickly help improve your overall health. Be sure to add more fiber to your diet slowly to help your body adjust. Adding too much fiber too quickly can lead to intestinal gas, abdominal bloating and cramping.
It’s also important to drink plenty of water as you increase your fiber intake. Fiber works best when it absorbs water.