Don’t diet. Just focus on getting enough fiber
It’s August, and the grocery stores, produce stands and farmer’s markets are full of one of the most important ingredients of a healthy diet: fiber. Many of us have heard that fruits, vegetables, and legumes like pinto beans are important as sources of vitamins and minerals, but fiber is an equally important element of these foods for maintaining life-long good health.
Do you eat fruits and vegetables daily? I estimate that at least 15 percent of my patients respond “no” when I ask them this question. Research shows that children and adults need 25-30 grams of fiber per day for good health, but most adults only get 15 grams a day.
That’s not enough. Every day we need to be munching on great sources of fiber, crunching carrots, dipping into guacamole and bean dip — with whole grain tortilla chips— and eating the rest of the rainbow of fruits and vegetables.
If you have heard about dietary fiber, you probably know that it’s good for your digestion and avoiding constipation and diverticular disease. But fiber is good for you in many more ways than that. For instance, did you know that eating ample fiber is one of the best ways to reach a healthy weight without starting any other diet? Getting plenty of fiber also reduces the risk of developing serious chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It does so by lowering cholesterol and helping maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Researchers have also learned more recently that fiber helps the gut maintain a healthy mix of microbes, which researchers now know can prevent some diseases.
Two kinds of fiber
Fiber is that part of the fruit, vegetable, grain or legume that passes through your body undigested. It is found in fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
There are two types of dietary fiber:
Soluble fiber: Comes from nuts, some fruit such as apples, some vegetables, oat bran, beans, peas, lentils and barley. When mixed with liquid (as during digestion) it dissolves into a gel that helps control blood sugar and reduce cholesterol.
Insoluble fiber: Comes from fruits, whole grains and most vegetables. This adds bulk and helps clean out the colon, helps food pass more quickly through the digestive tract, and helps prevent constipation.
Getting the fiber you need
Many organizations recommend at least 25-30 grams a fiber per day for adults to maintain good health. The American Heart Association recommends between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day in a well-balanced diet. Since most people only consume about half that, we need to focus a bit more on getting there. A day of meals that would reach this goal might include whole grain cereal with a banana in the morning, a lunch that includes a sandwich on whole wheat bread and some lettuce and tomato, or a burrito with beans and avocado, and dinner that includes at least two vegetables, either salad or sides such as broccoli, spinach, carrots, or another high fiber vegetable. Snacks with great fiber include a handful of almonds or other nuts and seeds, blueberries, a pear, popcorn, or hummus, especially with whole grain pita.
One of the pleasures of incorporating more fiber into your diet is that fiber-rich foods are usually colorful and delicious. It is also easy to fill up on these foods without gaining weight. To improve fiber intake, I suggest spending less time trying to stick to a particular diet and more simply reaching for the higher-fiber choice as often as possible. Some ways to do that:
Focus on high-fiber fruits and vegetables
Eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day will provide great fiber. Stand-outs include avocados (6g per half-cup), potatoes with skin (4g for one medium baked potato), peas — cooked or raw (1/2 cup, 4g), raspberries (1/2 cup, 4g), pears with skin (1 medium, 5g), orange (1 medium, 3g), blueberries (1 cup, 4g), butternut squash (1 cup, 7 g), cooked collard greens (1 cup, 8 g)
Eat beans and nuts/seeds for protein and fiber
Beans and nuts are especially high in soluble fiber. Consider cooked black beans (1/2 cup, 8g), navy beans (1/2 cup, 10g), or pinto beans (1/2 cup, 8g) among other options. Nuts include almonds (1/4 cup, 4g) and pistachios, peanuts and pecans (1/4 cup, 3g). Try eating these instead of meat (which lacks fiber) as a filling protein. Seeds are very high in fiber, including chia seeds (2 tablespoons, 11g) and flaxseed (2 tablespoons, 4g)
Choose to regularly substitute brown rice and whole grain flour for white rice and white flour
Whole grains have much more fiber than their white counterparts. Substitute brown rice for white, raisin bran for corn flakes, whole-wheat bagel for a plain bagel, sweet potatoes for white potatoes. Use whole grains such as barley, farro, oatmeal, corn, buckwheat and cracked wheat.
Additional health benefits from fiber include evidence that a higher fiber intake, especially during adolescence and early adulthood, lowers risk of breast cancer. Surprisingly, a high fiber diet is not associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer.
During these long days of summer, when gardens and farmers markets are overflowing with fruits and vegetables, make an effort to make sure you are getting 30 grams of fiber a day.
Incorporating more fiber into your diet is one of those actions, like getting regular exercise, that will benefit your everyday health, and will also improve your health over months and years of your life.
Ginny Sugimoto, MD, is a board-certified family practice doctor at Kaiser Permanente Port Orchard Medical Center. Her philosophy of care includes emphasizing a preventive lifestyle and shared decision-making in partnership with her patients.
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