Written by Olivia Barrera
On MyPlate, the federal healthy eating guideline, grains are a big portion of the daily recommended food. At least half of these should be whole grains and, by far, the most important nutrient in whole grains is the fiber! Yes, whole grains also naturally have more vitamins and healthy oils, but fiber is the star. Why is fiber so important? It serves as the Scrubbing Bubbles for your body, cleaning out the digestive system. But did you know consuming enough fiber is associated with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, and metabolic diseases such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes? In spite of these fabulous benefits, around 95% of people living in the US don’t consume enough fiber. This is known as The Fiber Gap by healthcare professionals and may be considered a public health concern.
More Health Benefits
Soluble fiber, found in beans and oats, lowers LPL, or bad, cholesterol. Fiber also helps heart health because it may be associated with lower blood pressure and inflammation. A fiber-rich diet may assist in losing weight. Increasing daily dietary fiber can even help you live longer! This is because cereal fiber intake is associated with a lower risk of dying from all cancers as well as cardiovascular disease.
How Much Fiber Should We Eat?
According to the Mayo Clinic, women should aim for 21-25 grams of fiber per day and 30-38 grams per day is recommended for men. Compared to the average adult intake of only 16 grams of fiber per day, that is a big gap!
Why Don’t We Get Enough Fiber?
There are misconceptions about which foods are actually high in fiber. For example, whole grains vary widely in fiber content. The only way be sure about how much fiber a food will deliver is to read the Nutrition Facts label. To determine if a food is a good source of fiber, look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Foods that are an excellent source of fiber are 5 grams per serving and up! See below for a list of high-fiber foods:
Soluble and Insoluble
Soluble fiber is the kind that dissolves in water to form a gel. If you’ve ever seen chia seed water or pudding you can picture what soluble fiber does in the digestive system as it pulls water in. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol and regulates glucose levels. Foods that contain this kind of fiber are oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, and psyllium.
Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. It is left intact and adds bulk to stool, helping waste pass through the digestive system more quickly. Food sources of insoluble fiber are whole wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans, and vegetables such as cauliflower.
Many foods contain both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Fiber and the Microbiome
The research in this area is not yet complete but eating a wide range of foods containing fiber is linked to a more diverse gut microbiome. This is the community of trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut and along your digestive tract. The microbiome lives on the mucus layer throughout the gut. This mucus layer, teamed with the microorganisms, protects your body from infection. When mice were given lower fiber diets, the microbiome resorted to feeding on that mucus layer and the mice were more susceptible to disease. People with more diverse microbiomes are generally healthier. A flourishing microbiome is also linked to better mental health and recent studies even show that 90-95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which influences mood, cognition, memory, reward, and learning. Introducing more fiber into a low-fiber diet was shown to restore serotonin levels in mice!
How to Get More Fiber in Each Meal
One sure-fire way to get more fiber in your diet is to eat more vegetables and whole grains. To make things more interesting, we have compiled some additional tips. Try adding chia seeds or ground flax to your smoothies and oats. Or, put cocoa powder into chilis, muffins, oats, or smoothies- it has 2 grams fiber per tablespoon! Mix oats into meatloaf and baked goods like cookies or bread. Put zucchini and/or carrots into meat sauce and meat balls. Add beans to foods such as burgers, tacos, and casseroles. Substituting half of the meat in these dishes with beans will also reduce the calories, could keep you full for longer, and lowers saturated fat! And remember, read the Nutrition Label! All Cooking Matters recipes will have a Nutrition Label included on the webpage and you can access all recipes by clicking on the images below.
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Can I Take Fiber Supplements Instead of Changing My Diet?
Taking a fiber supplement is an alternative and will certainly give you many advantages. However, increasing our fiber intake with whole foods is a better option because food gives us additional nutrients and keeps us satiated. High-fiber foods are some of the most nutritious (and delicious) foods out there: fruits and vegetables; nuts and seeds; whole grains and greens. Fiber supplements don’t have the vitamins and minerals that these foods provide.
Add Fiber to Your Diet Slowly and Stay Hydrated
While considering all of the delicious ways to introduce more fiber into your life, remember that changing your diet can cause certain…. side effects. Many people report increased gas and bloating when they start adding fiber to their diets. This is a natural effect and is not permanent in most individuals. These side effects are commonly caused by the fermentation of fibrous foods in the gut, a healthy and natural process. Think of them as a sign that your efforts to consume more fiber are working. A good way to combat these side effects is to start with one extra serving of a high-fiber food per day and let your body adjust for a week or so. Once your body has adjusted after the first week, add even more fiber to your daily intake. Keep in mind that soluble fiber draws water into the digestive tract, while helpful for moving waste out, this depletes the surrounding systems of water. It is recommended to increase water intake as one increases dietary fiber. 64 ounces of water is a good daily amount for most adults.
Sources and Further Reading
- Closing America’s Fiber Gap- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
- Nearly All Americans Fail to Eat Enough of this Actual Superfood- Vox
- ‘Cultured’: A Look at How Foods Can Help the Microbes Inside Us Thrive- NPR
- Chart of High-Fiber Foods- Mayo Clinic
- The Impact of Dietary Fiber on Gut Microbiota in Host Health and Disease- Cell Host & Microbe
- Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in Gut- Caltech
- How to Get More Fiber in Your Diet- Harvard Healthbeat