Healthbeat: Adding fiber to diet brings several health benefits
Updated: May 2, 2011 12:44PM
Most people think of fiber in terms of their gastrointestinal health -- aiding with constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome. While fiber does play an important role in treating those ailments and many others, it has also been shown to have a broader range of health benefits.
According to Dr. Matthew Smith, a gastroenterologist on staff at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, dietary fiber may also help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
What exactly is fiber? Fiber is a broad term that describes the part of plant foods that your body cannot digest. It is found mainly in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. As the American Dietetic Association says, "fiber is what puts the bulk in lettuce, the crunch in carrots and the chewiness in whole grain bread." Foods high in fiber are usually low in calories and fat while packed with vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients.
Eating fiber-rich foods also aids in digestion and the absorption of nutrients, and helps you to feel fuller longer after a meal, which in turn addresses obesity as it can help curb overeating and weight gain.
According to Smith, the amount of fiber you should get from your diet each day depends on your sex. He recommends females consume at least 25 grams per day, while males should aim for 30 grams.
"The best way to get fiber in your diet is through fresh fruits and vegetables," says Smith. "There are products like fiber bars and cereals enriched with fiber which are great and certainly count, but I always recommend getting as much fiber as you can through fresh foods as opposed to processed goods."
To increase the fiber in your diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber, including:
* beans such as navy, kidney and black
* sweet potatoes
* green peas and spinach
* raspberries and blackberries
* apples, pears and oranges
Also, replace refined white bread with whole-grain breads and cereals. Eat brown rice instead of white rice.
When eating store-bought foods, check the nutrition information labels for the amounts of dietary fiber in each product. Aim for 5 grams of fiber per serving.
People with certain medical conditions may require a fiber supplement, which are widely available over the counter at drug and grocery stores. You should speak with your physician about which supplement is best for you as there are several options available.
When you first add fiber to your diet, either through food or a supplement, you may notice bloating, cramping or gas. These will most likely subside as time goes on. Smith notes that adding fiber to one's diet should be a lifestyle change. It needs to be done consistently, not just to remedy a bout of constipation.
It is important to drink more fluids when you increase the amount of fiber you eat as liquids help your body digest fiber. Smith also suggests taking the time to chew your food.
"People are so busy and tend to eat so quickly that they literally don't chew their food," Smith says. "If you don't thoroughly chew your food, your body can't digest it and, in turn, can't reap the full benefits of it."
Chris Doucet wrote this column for Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare.
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