Am I Eating Enough Dietary Fiber?
Conversations regarding nutrition and the seemingly “ideal” diet are always evolving, but if there is one thing we know for sure, it’s that fruits and vegetables will never fail us. Among the plethora of micronutrients that keep our bodies up and running every day is dietary fiber.
Unfortunately, research shows that only 5% of Americans are consuming adequate amounts of fiber; the average American gets only 16 grams a day, which is about half of the recommended amount. Dietary fiber may be the closest thing we have to a superfood (or a super-nutrient?), so what exactly are we missing out on, and how much should we be eating?
- Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that has tremendous benefits including helping the digestive system function properly, lowering cholesterol, and reducing inflammation.
- Recommendations for dietary fiber intake vary depending on sex and age, but on average, we need about 25-30 grams of fiber each day.
- To increase fiber intake, consider eating more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and more nuts and legumes.
What is dietary fiber?
By definition, dietary fiber is a carbohydrate found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that is most likely known for its capability of preventing (or relieving) constipation, although it reaps other incredible benefits. Unlike fats and proteins, which your body breaks down and absorbs, fiber is the part of your food that your body can’t digest, so it passes more or less intact through your stomach, small intestine, colon, and eventually out of your body.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both play critical roles in our body’s digestive systems, but they have pretty significant differences. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forming a gel-like material and aiding in the reduction of both cholesterol and glucose levels; it is most commonly found in oats, peas, beans, citrus, and barley.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, doesn’t dissolve in water. Its main function is to promote the movement of material through the digestive system. In other words, insoluble fiber does the dirty work: it increases stool bulk and can help with constipation and irregular indigestion. Reliable sources of insoluble fiber include whole-wheat flour, bran, almonds, and vegetables such as cauliflower, green beans, and potatoes.
Despite the difference, it is important to note that almost all high-fiber foods contain a large amount of both kinds of fiber. So rather than focusing on the difference between the two, it is more important to concentrate on the total amount of fiber we are consuming.
Why is it important?
When thinking about the unfortunate degradation of the average American diet, we have a tendency to focus on the unnecessary amounts of added sugar, calories, and fats we’re eating. But in fixating on eating fewer carbs, we forget about some critical dietary components and micronutrients that many people are lacking, such as fiber.
As previously mentioned, dietary fiber may be the closest thing we have to a superfood (or super-nutrient), so by that logic, it basically has superpowers (if you consider regulating bowel movements and lowering blood sugar and cholesterol a superpower.) If you need any more reason to up your fiber intake, let’s deep dive into the benefits of a high-fiber diet.
Regulating bowel movements
Fiber is essentially the fuel that keeps your gastrointestinal system moving and grooving; it increases both the weight and size of stool in the body, making it easier to pass, as well as decreasing the risk of suffering from constipation. Furthermore, it absorbs water, solidifying the stool. People with irregular movements are frequently advised to increase fiber intake.
Maintaining bowel health
A high-fiber diet lowers the risk of developing hemorrhoids and is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the US (not including skin cancers) and the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths. Effective prevention has serious potential to improve public health.
Lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels
There is both “good” and “bad” cholesterol, and soluble dietary fiber helps to lower total blood cholesterol by lowering the “bad.” This also, by default, leads to less inflammation and lower blood pressure.
Furthermore, in those with diabetes, the soluble fiber, in particular, slows the absorption of sugar, improving blood sugar levels. A high-fiber diet can also reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes; in fact, research shows that low-fiber diets more than double the risk of type 2 diabetes when compared to a high-fiber diet.
Keeps you feeling full for longer and improves one’s overall quality of life
High-fiber foods are typically more filling than other foods; they are less energy-dense, so they have fewer calories for generally the same amount of food. This way, you can eat less and stay full longer, lessening the need for frequent snacking and extra meals.
There is also research that shows consuming an adequate amount of fiber is correlated with a 40 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and all cancers. That sounds like a win!
How do you increase your dietary fiber intake?
We know that most Americans don’t eat enough fiber, but how much is “enough?” And how much is “too much?” While the recommended intake of fiber varies by sex and age, we have a pretty good idea of how much fiber we should be consuming, and how to incorporate more into our diet.
On average, women should be consuming anywhere from 21 to 25 grams of fiber each day. Men should be consuming slightly more, with an ideal range being about 30 to 38 grams per day. A good fiber target for children ages 13 and under to be hitting is about 19 to 25 grams per day.
If you are worried you aren’t quite meeting the recommended amount of fiber intake each day, here are some tips to consider adding to your routine to ensure you’re filling your body with fulfilling dietary fiber.
- Start your day off the right way! Eating high-fiber, whole-grain, and bran cereals are all great options to start the day with a high fiber intake to get things running smoothly from the start.
- Fill up on beans! Adding beans to soup and chili, making nachos with your favorite beans, or creating some delicious tacos with fresh toppings and a side of rice and beans is a great way to incorporate fiber into your diet.
- Eat fruits and vegetables! High-fiber foods don’t have to taste bad. Eating a plethora of colorful fruits and veggies will ensure you’re satisfying your body’s needs for fiber and other micronutrients.
- Consider switching to whole-grains! A good goal is to aim to consume at least half of your grains as whole grains. On a food label, look for grains with at least 2 grams of dietary fiber. Swap out white rice for brown, and consider whole wheat pasta instead of normal spaghetti every once in a while.
Fiber can also be consumed in the form of a supplement, but supplements don’t provide the same variety of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that whole foods do. Nothing can replace the benefits of loading up on trusted fruits and vegetables!
In conclusion, eating a high-fiber diet is best to keep the body running smoothly, but adding too much can, unfortunately, do the opposite. Your body has a limit, and surpassing that limit can unknowingly welcome gas, indigestion, and discomfort.
Slowly start incorporating additional fiber into your diet, rather than doing it all at once. to allow your gut flora time to adapt and respond properly. Furthermore, make sure to drink plenty of water all the time. Water is fiber’s partner in crime: they work best together, so if you aren’t intentionally going out of your way to drink water, you most likely aren’t drinking enough!
For many, increasing fiber intake might be easier said than done. Most people aren’t meeting fiber requirements because they aren’t following a generally healthy diet. Learning how to make food at home and becoming more knowledgeable and aware about what we’re putting into our bodies is a critical first step in increasing the percentage of Americans who meet dietary fiber requirements.
Written by Morgan Taylor