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Commonly known as bulk or roughage, fiber is the part of plant foods that our bodies cannot digest. There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble, and each has its own function.

Soluble fiber dissolves in water, forming gelatinous substances in the colon and helping delay stomach emptying. Consuming this type of fiber can help reduce cholesterol as well as aid in controlling blood sugars, which is important for people with diabetes. Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal, oat bran, fruit, barley, and legumes.

Insoluble fiber cannot dissolve in water and cannot be absorbed by the intestinal tract. It adds bulk and helps prevent constipation. Insoluble fiber is found in foods like dark green leafy vegetables, whole wheat products, and the skins of fruit.

There are many health benefits to eating foods rich in fiber. Fiber can help control diverticular disease, irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoids, gallstones, hiatal hernia, high blood pressure, and stroke, and can also promote weight loss. Some research has ever suggested that fiber may decrease the risk of cancer.

Are You Getting Enough?

Our ancestors’ diets were based on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—in other words, fiber. Over time, the Western diet shifted away from whole foods toward more technology-based, or processed, foods. The more processed a food is, the lower the fiber content.

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The American Dietetic Association recommends that adults consume between 25 and 35 grams of fiber each day. Most Americans consume about 10 to 15 grams a day. Eating a varied, well-balanced diet will help you reach an optimum fiber intake. Sticking with a diet based on whole, fresh foods will automatically guide you toward food choices that are high in fiber. Aim for two to three servings of fruit, three to five servings of vegetables, and two to three servings of whole-grain starches a day. In addition, you might try substituting legumes (beans or lentils) for meat a few times a week.

Should You Supplement?

If you’re doing your best to fill your diet with good fiber choices and are still having trouble getting enough fiber, a supplement may be beneficial. These products add bulk and help the digestive tract perform naturally. It should be noted, however, that fiber supplements are missing the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that work together to prevent disease.

Also, consult your doctor before using these products, as they can allow the colon to rest, which can lead to greater constipation and dependence.

The Final Word on Fiber

Adding fiber to your diet might mean making a few changes to your meal plans, but the benefits to your overall health will make it well worth the effort. Follow the tips listed below and make it your goal to reach 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day. Your body will thank you for it!

Tips for Increasing your Fiber Intake

  • Add fiber gradually to reduce excess gas, bloating, and cramping that can sometimes occur.
  • Remember to drink plenty of water to avoid constipation.
  • Avoid eating gas-forming vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower at the same time as legumes.
  • To reduce the gassiness of legumes, rinse canned beans thoroughly or drain the liquid from soaked beans before cooking with them.
  • Remember to slow down and chew food thoroughly to aid digestion.
  • Check labels carefully. Not all wheat bread is high in fiber—look for whole wheat bread to ensure you get the highest fiber content.
  • Crunchy does not always mean high in fiber. For example, celery is crunchy, but contains less than one gram of fiber.