Fiber—you know it’s good for you. But if you’re like many Americans, you don’t get enough. In fact, most of us get about half the recommended amount of fiber each day.
Dietary fiber is found in the plants you eat, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s sometimes called bulk or roughage. You’ve probably heard that it can help with digestion. So it may seem odd that fiber is a substance that your body can’t digest. Much of it passes through your digestive system practically unchanged.
Types of Fiber: Soluble and Insoluble
Different types of fiber can affect your health in different ways. That’s why the Nutrition Facts labels on some foods may list two categories of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is found in oats, beans, peas, and most fruits. Insoluble fiber is found in wheat bran and some vegetables.
Some soluble fiber is broken down by the complex community of bacteria and other microbes that live in the human gut. These microbes, called gut flora or microbiota, help with our digestion. Emerging research shows they can affect our health in various ways. Studies suggest that they may play a role in obesity, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and other conditions. Researchers are now looking at how different types of dietary fibers affect the gut microbiota—and how that, in turn, affects our health.
But soluble and insoluble fiber aren’t always listed separated on labels. Many foods contain both. And both types have health benefits. Experts suggest that men aim for about 38 grams of fiber a day, and women about 25 grams. Unfortunately, in the United States, we take in an average of only 16 grams of fiber each day.
Fiber can help relieve constipation and normalize your bowel movements. Insoluble fiber is often used to treat or prevent constipation and diverticular disease, which affects the large intestine, or colon. Scientists have also looked into links between fiber and different types of cancer, with mixed results. For example, there is evidence that a high intake of dietary fiber may reduce the risk for colon cancer and colon polyps.
Some of fiber’s greatest benefits are related to cardiovascular health. Several large studies have found that people who eat the most fiber had a lower risk for heart disease.
Type 2 Diabetes
Fiber may also play a role in reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes. Fiber in the intestines can slow the absorption of sugar, which helps prevent blood sugar from spiking.
Your weight is another area where fiber might help. High-fiber foods generally make you feel fuller for longer. Studies have found that people with high fiber intake tend to weigh less—although that may be because their diets are healthier.
Fit More Fiber Into Your Day!
Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are packed with vitamins and other nutrients, so experts recommend that you get most of your fiber from these natural sources.
The bottom line is that most of us need to fit more fiber into our day, no matter what the source.
Increase your fiber intake gradually, so your body can get used to it. Adding fiber slowly helps you avoid gas, bloating, and cramps. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts to add a mix of different fibers and a wide range of nutrients to your diet. A fiber-rich diet can help your health in many ways!