Facts on Fiber

Sunday, July 03, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Omar Shamout

When I was very young, my mother implored me to eat my bran flakes or else I wouldn't get enough fiber. I don't know about you, but from the age of four on, anything my mother told me to do automatically became worth avoiding at all costs. Plus, the word "bran" sounded like "bland," so my mind decided I was going to dislike it before even trying it. But in hindsight, perhaps my mother knew what she was talking about. Fiber is essential to maintaining a healthy digestive system, while also having positive effects on your heart, cholesterol, and blood sugar.

What is fiber? Fiber is a complex carbohydrate found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. It is so complex, in fact, that the body can't digest it.

Note that I wrote whole grains. When it comes to grains, you'll find the fiber in the outer shell, or bran (there's that word again). The problem that many of us face in getting fiber from breads, pasta, rice, or cereal is that the processed foods we know and love are made from refined grains that have been stripped of the bran and therefore contain very little fiber. And just because it says "wheat" somewhere on the bag or box doesn't mean it has fiber in it. Wonder® Bread is made from wheat. If you want the whole deal, you need to verify that the ingredients list whole wheat or another kind of whole grain. And even then, check the fiber listing on the nutrition facts panel to see how much you're getting.

What does fiber do? There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber goes through your system "as is," and helps to regulate bowel movements. As insoluble fiber moves through the digestive tract and colon, it takes other things along with it, thus beefing up your stool and making it easier to pass. This is a simple and easy way to aid in weight loss because you're eliminating more waste from your body.

Because it dissolves in water, soluble fiber takes on a gel-like consistency in the stomach, slowing digestion and lowering blood sugar levels by slowing the rate at which sugar is released into the blood. Soluble fiber also regulates cholesterol by binding with fatty acids. If these benefits aren't enough to convince you, fiber has also been shown to reduce the risk of coronary artery (heart) disease and type 2 diabetes. Here is a chart that breaks down how much fiber is recommended by the USDA in order to accomplish the aforementioned benefits and maintain a healthy diet:

Age 50 and younger Age 51 and older
Men 38 g 30 g
Women 25 g 21 g

But I don't like the way fiber-rich foods taste! We get it, and food manufacturers do, too. They are realizing that consumers have gotten increasingly savvy about what goes into their food (and subsequently, into their bodies), and are offering more and more whole-grain options of popular brands. Taste preference is all about what you know. Obviously, refined flour-based foods are appealing because they taste good, but a large part of their dominance is based simply on the fact that we are used to them. If you make a commitment to buying whole-grain products, your taste buds will adapt, and you will learn to prepare whole-grain foods in a way that works for you, and combine them with other foods that will leave you happy and healthy.

It's also important to realize that you don't need to change everything about the way you eat overnight. Small changes can add up. If you don't like whole-grain bread, start with adding more apples or beans to your diet. Have fun and experiment. Don't get frustrated because you don't like eating bran muffins and proclaim that fiber isn't worth the trouble. There are always solutions to a problem if you're patient enough to find them. For a great source of gourmet, high-fiber recipes, check out The High-Fiber Cookbook by Bryanna Clark Grogan.

Supplements, you say? If you change your diet and you're still not getting all the fiber you need, supplements are a great way to boost your fiber intake. The main drawback to fiber supplements is that you deprive your body of the other vitamins and minerals that you would be consuming along with the fiber you get from foods. If a food is high in fiber, it's probably high in many other things that are good for you too, and you end up killing eight essential birds (or vitamins) with one stone (or bowl of lentil soup). Keeping this in mind, let's explore four popular forms of fiber supplements:
  1. Apple pectin. Pectin is a compound found primarily in apples, but also in plums, peaches, and other fruits. It's useful in easing ongoing conditions such as diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. It acts as an antioxidant, which has been shown to have a positive effect in reducing the risk of certain cancers and lowering cholesterol in the bloodstream. As a result, it is especially recommended for those who eat a high-fat diet.
  2. Psyllium husk. The dried covering of plant seeds, psyllium husk contains a whopping 71 grams of fiber in only one-third of a cup. Some people are very allergic to psyllium husk, so always consult a doctor before adding this or any other supplement to your diet.

    One side effect to psyllium husk powder, and high-fiber diets in general, is that it can give you gas. A lot of gas. The best way to deal with this unfortunate problem is to increase your daily fiber intake slowly. A sudden increase of 20 grams of fiber or more per day will cause a lot of discomfort, so allow your body to get comfortable with a new diet, and don't rush into it. Also, popular fiber supplements such as Metamucil® merely combine psyllium husk with sugar, so you're better off skipping the sweetness and going for the real thing.
  3. Flaxseed. Flaxseed is a wonderful plant food because it contains not only soluble and insoluble fiber, but also high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which greatly reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and fight different types of cancers, specifically of the colon, prostate, and breast. Lignans found in flaxseed have also been proven to prevent the incidence and growth rate of tumors in cancers that are sensitive to hormones. One or two tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily is the suggested dose, and it can be easily added to foods like yogurt, cereal, soup, etc. However, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised not to supplement their diet with flaxseed until further studies examining its effect on them are concluded, and again, it's important to consult with your physician about adding any supplements to your diet.
  4. Wheat germ. Wheat germ is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, but is more known for its high quantities of B vitamins, which aid in regulating metabolism and stress levels, and vitamin E, which benefits the skin.
Whether you do it because Beachbody told you to, or simply because you think it's about time to heed some of your mother's advice, figure out a way to get the recommended amount of fiber in your diet, and it may help you achieve a smaller waistline as a result, whi