R. Morgan Griffin
Brunilda Nazario, MD
You've heard about the benefits of healthy fiber before. But you might not think they apply to you. You might associate "healthy fiber" with prunes and constipation.
This misconception grates on researchers. "When I tell people that I study the effects of fiber, they always assume I'm talking constipation," says Kelly A. Tappenden, PhD, RD,a spokeswoman for the American Gastroenterological Association. "I'm not. The subject is much more complex than that."
In fact, there are many benefits of healthy fiber for digestive health. Studies show that fiber is important for people of any age, and it helps treat and prevent a number of conditions -- ranging from severe acid reflux (known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) to inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) to obesity and diverticulitis. Here’s how healthy fiber helps digestive health -- and why you need to get more of it.
Here is the evidence on some of the benefits of healthy fiber for digestive health:
Other health benefits. Fiber's benefits aren't confined to digestive health. Studies have found that healthy fiber can also lower cholesterol, promote healthy blood sugar levels, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and help people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Fiber is the general name for material in vegetables, fruits, and grains that our bodies can't digest fully. There are two terms used to describe fiber:
For general digestive health, it’s important to get plenty of both kinds of fiber.
Experts say that Americans generally get about half of the fiber they need.
Eat more fruits and vegetables. Experts say that you should eat at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables each day.
Eat more whole grains. When grains are refined, the fiber is removed. Opt for whole grains when you can. Oatmeal, barley, and brown rice are all good options. You can also add high-fiber bran to many foods, from cereal to meatloaf.
Check the labels. Before you add a food to your shopping cart, check the amount of healthy fiber on the nutrition label. Try to choose items with five grams or more of fiber per serving.
Drink water. If you're adding more healthy fiber to your diet, add more water too, Tappenden says. Without enough water, the extra amounts of some fiber can increase the risk of constipation.
Go slowly. If you want to add more healthy fiber, do it gradually. Don't go overboard and double your intake overnight. That is bound to leave you feeling wretched, bloated, and crampy. Instead, increase your healthy fiber over several weeks.
Consider a supplement. Although experts say it's best to get fiber through whole foods, taking a supplement can fill in the gap if your meals don’t give you the recommended amounts of fiber. Don't pick a fiber supplement off the shelf at random. Get advice from a doctor first. Different supplement brands contain different types of fiber, and the best one for you depends on your particular needs.
SOURCES:Anderson J. Nutrition Reviews, 2009; vol 67: pp 188-205.Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, national spokesperson, American Heart Association; Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston.Edgar R. Miller III, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Medical University, Baltimore.Kelly A. Tappenden, PhD, RD,professor of nutrition and gastrointestinal physiology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; co-chair, nutrition and obesity section, American Gastroenterological Association.American Academy of Family Physicians: “Fiber: How to Increase the Amount in Your Diet.”American Heart Association: “Whole Grains and Fiber.”Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (National Academies Press, 2005).Harvard School of Public Health: “Fiber: Start Roughing It.”
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