Fiber: Key Nutrient in a Healthy Diet
Dietary fiber is a very important part of a healthy lifestyle. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend women consume 25 grams of dietary fiber per day and men consume 38 grams per day. This might be a stretch for the average American that consumes around 15 grams of fiber or less per day. The following information will explain what fiber is, why fiber is so important, and ways to get more fiber in your diet each day.
What is Fiber?
Fiber is the roughage or bulk in certain foods that your body cannot digest or absorb. Unlike other food components such as fats, proteins, or carbohydrates - which your body breaks down and absorbs - fiber is not digested by your body. Therefore, it passes virtually unchanged through your stomach and small intestine and into your colon.
Fiber is classified into two categories. Insoluble fiber helps promote regular bowel function and also aids in keeping the intestines at a balanced pH level, thus decreasing the risk of colon cancer. Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. It slows digestion, helps your body absorb vital nutrients from foods, and helps to decrease LDL cholesterol levels.
How Can Fiber Help Me?
Constipation is a very common problem experienced by people who use wheelchairs for ambulation. Ensuring that you have an adequate amount of fiber in your diet can significantly help with bowel management. When fiber is increased in the diet, however, it is also very important to increase water intake. Water helps move food through the digestive tract, thus helping fiber perform its functions.
Fiber helps keep you satisfied longer after you eat and therefore assists in weight control. Fiber slows digestion, meaning that the nutrients from the foods you eat do not absorb into the bloodstream as quickly. The slowed digestion also helps regulate blood sugar levels by preventing the highs and lows that refined carbohydrates, like white rice, white bread, sugary cereals, and regular (not whole wheat) pasta often cause.
What are the Best Sources of Fiber?
The best sources of insoluble fiber are wheat bran, whole-grain products, and vegetables. The best sources of soluble fiber are oats, beans, dried peas, and legumes. Fruits, vegetables, and barley are sources of both insoluble and soluble fiber.
Shopping at the grocery store can be very tricky. Many foods are deceiving and you are not always getting what you think you are getting. For example, you might see something called "Whole Wheat Bread" or "5 Grain Bread" on the shelf, but it's possible that the product contains little or no fiber. Reading the food labels and the ingredient lists on foods are the best strategies to ensure you are getting the biggest "fiber bang" for your buck.
Tips for Increasing Your Daily Intake of Fiber:
- Bread - Look for breads that have at least 3 grams of fiber or more per slice.
- Fruits and Vegetables - Whenever possible eat the edible skins on fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
- Pasta - Purchase whole grain pasta noodles instead of regular white pasta.
- Rice - Choose brown rice instead of white rice.
- Cereals - Choose cereals that have at least 5 grams of fiber or more per serving. Look for ingredients such as whole-wheat flour and corn. Sugar should NOT be listed as one of the first two ingredients.
If you do not currently include high-fiber foods in your diet but are looking to do so, remember to start slowly. Increasing fiber intake too quickly can often result in abdominal pain and discomfort. Also remember to increase your water intake as you increase fiber to avoid constipation. Over time, you will start to enjoy the benefits of a healthy, high-fiber diet.