Dr. John Kellogg, who founded the company that was to become Kellogg's cereal, was a big proponent of fiber in the late 1800s. And Charles Post invented Grape-Nuts, still a popular high-fiber cereal, in 1897. However, fiber has had a bit of an up-and-down history. During the middle of the 20th century it was common to consider fiber a relatively unimportant part of a diet, and it was typically removed from items like white flour.
Talk about fiber has increased in recent years. Part of this is due to the increased awareness of healthy eating over the past 30 or 40 years. Vegetarian cooking tends to be higher in fiber than diets containing meat. And heart-healthy cooking, which is where you got started in creating healthier versions of recipes, also generally includes higher fiber, for reason that we'll discuss.
A number of recent medical studies have also confirmed the medical benefits of high-fiber diets for a number of different conditions. Here are a few:
- A study published in the May 11, 2000, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported that patients with diabetes who maintained very high fiber in their daily diet lowered their glucose levels by 10 percent.
- A 1976 study by the Veterans Administration Medical Center, Lexington, Kentucky, showed that fiber is useful in treating diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity and in reducing cholesterol levels.
- Two studies published in the Lancet showed that people with high-fiber diets suffered from fewer incidents of colon polyps and colon cancer.
So there are a lot of good reasons to add more fiber to your diet, even if you aren't currently being treated for a medical condition that requires it. In the next section we'll look at some of those reasons in more detail.
Why Increase the Amount of Fiber in Your Diet?
So what are the benefits of a high-fiber diet? Let's take a look at some of the more common ones.
Let's start with this one since it's on a lot of people's minds. If you do a search online, You'll find any number of people pushing high-fiber eating as a way to lose weight. And it does work. We'll get into more details in the next section, but the short explanation is that by eating more fiber, You'll feel more full and want to eat fewer calories. And the bottom line in losing weight is to burn more calories than you eat.
Reduce the Rick of Certain Cancers
A major benefit for everyone is the role that fiber has been shown to have in reducing cancer. you already mentioned the studies that showed people who eat a high-fiber diet have less colon cancer. It appears there are a number of benefits to colon health from fiber. First, it helps to push stools through the colon more quickly, which contributes to overall colon health. Water-soluble fiber also encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon. And finally, it helps to bind potential carcinogens and excrete them from the body. The bottom line is that the people who eat a high-fiber diet have been shown to have a 40 percent reduction in the risk of colon cancer.
But colon cancer isn't the only cancer that fiber can reduce. Studies done in England have revealed not only that women who eat a high-fiber diet are less likely to develop breast cancer, but also that women who already had breast cancer had a longer life expectancy on a high-fiber diet. And finally, studies have shown a significant reduction in uterine cancer in women who ate a high-fiber diet.
Help the Heart and Circulatory System
Fiber has also had positive effects in fighting heart disease, the number-one killer of both men and women in the United States. Primarily, getting to and staying at a desirable weight reduces one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. But fiber also contributes in other more active ways. First of all, it helps to reduce cholesterol levels. It does this in several ways. One is by encouraging the production of propionic acid in the intestines, which inhibits the production of cholesterol. Secondly, it removes bile acids from the intestines. In order to make more bile acids, the liver requires cholesterol, which it removes from the bloodstream. The bottom line … high-fiber diets have reduced the bad kind of cholesterol, LDL, by 10 to 15 percent.
Help Control Blood Pressure
Another way that fiber contributes to heart and overall health is by reducing high blood pressure. High-fiber diets have been shown to reduce blood pressure by three to seven points, enough to reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 9 percent. Cholesterol reduction contributes to lower blood pressure. Fiber also tends to widen the arteries, reducing the risk of blockage.
Strengthen the Immune System
Fiber can help to keep you healthy by strengthening your immune system. Other diets rely on drastic reductions of food intake. This often has the effect of reducing the number and health of white blood cells. A high-fiber diet, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, strengthening the white blood cells. It also promotes health by increasing beneficial bacteria in the intestines.
Help Fight Diabetes
Finally, a high-fiber diet can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Reducing your weight is again a positive thing for reducing the risk of diabetes; but it also helps in other ways. It slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Research has found that a high-fiber meal can reduce blood sugar levels by as much as 28 percent. It also has been proven to improve insulin sensitivity, which better enables the body to process sugar.
How Does Fiber Work in the Body?
Fiber provides its benefits through a complex series of actions in the body. Without getting into a lot a medical details (which you don't really understand anyway), let's look at a few of them.
High-fiber foods require you to work a little more. In general, they are going to require more chewing. This is good, as it encourages you to eat more slowly. Since it takes a while for the body to determine that it is full, this happens earlier in the meal process, causing you to eat less.
In the stomach, high-fiber food also contributes to that full feeling. Fiber absorbs water, making the stomach feel more full. It also tends to stay in the stomach longer, meaning that you won't feel hungry as soon.
In the intestines, fiber triggers the production of chemicals that again tell the brain that you are full. An additional benefit is that fiber is not absorbed, so it represents calories that will not be stored in the body.
Fiber's ability to reduce the blood sugar level means that you will feel less hungry and feel fewer cravings for high-calorie foods.
How Much Fiber Should you Eat?
So how much fiber is enough? The American Dietetic Association recommends between 20 and 35 grams. However, the average intake in the United States is only 12 to 15 grams. The recommended amount for children under 18 is determined by adding five to a child's age. For example, a 7-year-old child would need 12 grams of fiber a day. The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine gives the following daily recommendations for adults:
- Men 50 and younger—38 grams
- Men 51 and older—30 grams
- Women 50 and younger—25 grams
- Women 51 and older—21 grams
There's good news and bad news there. The bad news is that unless you are consciously watching your fiber intake, you probably aren't getting nearly the recommended amounts. The good news is that if you do watch what you eat, it isn't as difficult as you think to reach them.
What About the Potential Problems?
What do you think about when you think high fiber? Beans. And what do you think of when you think of beans? Gas.
It's true that high-fiber foods can produce gas. It's especially true if you suddenly start eating lots of high-fiber foods. So there are a few things you should consider as you start adding fiber to your diet.
- Start slowly and build up. If you've been eating 10 grams of fiber a day, don't suddenly jump to 35 grams. Add fiber a little at a time, perhaps starting with breakfast, then lunch, and then dinner.
- Drink more water. Fiber absorbs water in the digestive tract. So You'll want to make sure you drink plenty. Some experts recommend doubling your water intake until you know how your body is going to handle the fiber increase.
- If beans or other foods cause gas problems, take an enzyme product such as Beano. It actually works to reduce the amount of gas by helping you break down the starches that cause the gas when they are digested in the intestines.
- If certain raw foods cause gas, cook them, which makes them easier to digest.
How Do you Add More Fiber to My Diet?
Now that we've looked at why adding more fiber to our diet is a good idea, let's take a quick look at the how. It isn't really as difficult as you might think. We'll look at a few simple things you can do when you go to the grocery store and then some specific recommendations for different groups of foods that are high in fiber.
The first thing to do is to be aware of the fiber content of foods. Become a label reader. If you are just starting out, take an extra hour at the store reading nutrition labels and looking at the fiber content. There really are a lot of foods out there with fiber in them. Unlike when you first started on a low-sodium diet, you don't have to make nearly everything from scratch. All you need to do is make smart choices. And the things you pick don't all have to have huge amounts to help you get to your goal. Sure, a serving of beans might have 15 grams, but no one wants to eat beans every day. But you can get that same 15 grams from two or three servings of vegetables or any of a number of combinations.
Just as an example, here are a couple of low-fiber or high-fiber choices:
- Puffed rice cereal—0 grams; shredded wheat—5 grams
- White bread (such as Wonder)—0 grams; light wheat bread (such as Wonder)—5 grams
- Regular pasta (such as Barilla)—2 grams; whole wheat pasta (such as Barilla)—6 grams
- White flour—0 grams; whole wheat pastry flour—3 grams
The great news about these choices is that You'll find the higher-fiber choice also tastes better, has more flavor, and leaves you feeling more satisfied.
Even the kind of ice cream you choose can make a difference. Ben and Jerry's Super Fudge Chunk has 2 grams of fiber
And of course, you should be looking to add more foods from the following groups to your diet.
Beans and other legumes are the poster child for high-fiber foods. A single serving can provide 15 grams or more of fiber. They also have been proven effective at keeping you from feeling hungry the longest and have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain kinds of cancer.
Of course, as you said, you probably won't eat beans every day, but you should strive for two or three servings a week. And there are lots of ways to incorporate legumes into your diet. This book contains 70 recipes that feature just legumes and a number more where they are included as an ingredient along with other high-fiber foods.
Here are a few suggestions for including more legumes in your diet:
- Use legumes as snacks. There are a number of recipes here for bean dips, spreads, and other snack items. True, most of them only contain 2 or 3 grams of fiber, but combined with a high-fiber dipper like fresh vegetables or whole wheat pita chips, they can contribute quickly to your daily fiber goal.
- Add them into other recipes. Beans and chickpeas make a great addition to many soups, salads, and dishes like rice or grain side dishes. You'll find lots of those kind of recipes here in the chapters featuring combinations.
- Think of different ways to use them in dishes. True, you can make chili or baked beans, but there are also things like burritos, split pea soup, and marinated bean salads.
Here are examples of the amount of fiber in a serving of a few common legumes:
- Navy beans—19 grams
- Split peas—16 grams
- Lentils—16 grams
- Black beans—15 grams
- Lima beans—13 grams
- Kidney beans—11 grams
- Black-eyed peas—9 grams
Whole grains are a great source of fiber and one that's easy to include in your diet. You should eat two or three servings of whole grains a day. Whole grains contribute to that full feeling that keeps you from overeating and have been shown to slow the absorption of sugar into the blood. They also contain many other minerals and nutrients that are removed from processed grains.
Here are some ways to increase the amount of whole grains in your diet:
- Use whole grain bread instead of white bread. This is a simple choice to make and an easy one. Today's grocery stores offer an incredible variety of whole grain breads to choose from.
- Choose whole grain pastas and rice. This is a change that we've made in our diet fairly recently. you never really paid much attention to whole grain pasta, but now you find that you much prefer the flavor to the bland regular pasta. And you generally avoided brown rice because it took longer to cook, even though you preferred the flavor of it also. But now there are quick-cooking and microwaveable varieties of brown rice that make it as easy as white rice.
- Choose high-fiber cereals. A number of studies show that starting the day with a bowl of high-fiber cereal is one of the things that is most positively linked with weight loss.
- Consider alternative grains. Rather than just pasta or rice or potatoes, think about main dishes and side dishes that contain barley, bulgur, kasha, and other grains. You'll find a number of recipes in this book that contain them.
Here is the amount of fiber in a cup of several kinds of whole grains:
- Whole wheat flour—18 grams
- Barley—13 grams
- Whole grain pasta—4 grams or more, depending on the brand
- Oats—4 grams
- Brown rice—3 grams
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables offer a number of health benefits, and increased fiber is just one of them. The five-serving-a-day goal has been well established and publicized. That may seem like a lot, but when you start counting, You'll find that it is not really that difficult to reach. They are a great food value when you are trying to lose weight, since they provide needed bulk while generally being low in calories.
In order to get the most fiber benefit from your fruits and vegetables, here are a few tips:
- Eat whole fruits and vegetables as much as possible. The skin contains many nutrients, as well as fiber. And the seeds in items like fresh tomatoes add fiber that's missing in many processed tomato products.
- Choose fresh fruits and vegetables over frozen or canned if necessary, choose and frozen over canned. The more an item is processed, the more likely it is to have had the healthful nutrients and fiber removed and undesirable things like salt added.
- Don't just think of salads. True, salads are a low-calorie, healthy addition to your diet. But they may not pack the fiber punch that other vegetable servings do. Lettuce, for example, is not one of the better sources of fiber, generally containing less than 1 gram per serving.
The following is the amount of fiber in a 1-cup serving of some common fruits and vegetables:
- Prunes—12 grams
- Avocado—10 grams
- Green peas—9 grams
- Raspberries—8 grams
- Pumpkin and winter squash—6 or 7 grams
- Collard greens—5 grams
- Potato, medium—5 grams
- Pear, medium—5 grams
- Apple, large—5 grams
- Corn—4 grams
- Green beans—4 grams
- Asparagus—4 grams
- Bell pepper—3 grams
- Strawberries—3 grams
- Banana—3 grams
- Cabbage—3 grams
- Eggplant—2 grams
- Broccoli—2 grams
- Peaches—2 grams
- Pineapple—2 grams
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds provide a surprising amount of fiber in a small serving. You should plan on several servings a week.
Here are some suggestions for including more nuts and seeds in your diet:
- Use them as snacks. Unlike snack items like chips, nuts provide a significant nutritional benefit. We've included a number of recipes for snack mixes and other ways to incorporate more nuts into your diet.
- Use them as toppings and additions. Nuts and seeds can be added to salads, used to top baked goods, and sprinkled over vegetables and casseroles.
The following shows the amount of fiber in an ounce of various nuts and seeds.
- Almonds—3 grams
- Pistachios—3 grams
- Peanut butter, chunky, 3 tablespoons—2 grams
- Sunflower seeds—2 grams
- Peanuts—2 grams
- Sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon—1 gram
Other Fiber Sources
There are several other rather surprising sources of fiber. These aren't where You'll get the majority of your fiber, but if you can pick up a few grams while indulging in something you like, why not?
- Coffee—Coffee contains between 1 gram per serving for filtered coffee and up to almost 2 grams for instant coffee.
- Chocolate—An ounce of chocolate candy contains almost 2 grams of fiber.
- Spices—A teaspoon of spice may contain up to a gram of fiber. In addition, some spices like fennel, cayenne, cumin, and turmeric have been shown to improve digestion and reduce gas and bloating.