This post was written by Alison Johnson, MS, RDN, LD, Parkview Health.
Consuming fiber can help reduce the risk of various chronic illnesses. Fiber is a form of carbohydrate that gives structure and strength to plants. Most plant foods, such as grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, are high in fiber. Research supports that consuming a diet high in fiber can help maintain or obtain a healthy body weight, prevent various types of cancer, control blood sugar and reduce cholesterol levels.
Types of fiber
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both aid in healthy digestion and bowel regulation, which can help with diarrhea or constipation. Soluble fiber forms a gel when mixed with liquid. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, and it passes through your digestive tract without breaking down.
Fiber is a form of carbohydrate which provides the body with energy and beneficial nutrients. It is important to choose complex carbohydrate sources compared to simple carbohydrates. Whole grains are considered complex carbohydrates that are naturally high in fiber, helping individuals feel full and satisfied. Examples include brown rice, buckwheat, oatmeal, popcorn, whole-wheat bread, pasta and crackers.
The health benefits of whole grains come from all three parts of the grain – the bran, germ and endosperm. Whereas refined grains are milled and processed, which strips the grain of its naturally accruing, disease-fighting nutrients. The refining process removes fiber, vitamins and minerals. Many breads, cereals, crackers and desserts are made from white flour, which is a refined grain. When choosing a whole grain food, look for the word “whole” as the first item on the ingredient list.
High fiber foods also contain anti-inflammatory properties which can help prevent and manage conditions associated with inflammation. Many diseases are linked to chronic inflammation, including Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, chronic pain, depression, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Eating a diet high in fiber-containing plant foods can help decrease inflammation to reduce these chronic illnesses. When individuals eat more plant foods, such as beans, lentils, whole grains and nuts, inflammation levels are lower in the body. These are also examples of plant-based proteins. Plant-based protein helps lower inflammation compared to animal protein which can increase inflammation leading to chronic illness.
How much do you need?
Most foods have both types of fiber. Examples include whole grain breads and cereals, oats, brown rice, popcorn, quinoa, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. The suggested amount of fiber per day for women is approximately 21-25 grams and men is 30-38 grams. If you don’t already have adequate fiber in your diet, it is recommended to increase consumption slowly and drink plenty of fluids to prevent bowel discomfort.
How to get more fiber in your diet
If you want to increase your fiber intake, there are some simple changes you can make:
- Aim for 3 servings of vegetables. Add chopped vegetables into eggs and breakfast dishes or blend into your smoothie mixture. Include extra vegetables on your sandwich at lunch. Add a hot vegetable with your evening meal by sneaking them into soups and pasta dishes. Experiment with veggie noodles like zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash.
- Opt for fruit in place of sugary desserts. Choose fruit as a quick snack or sweet treat after a meal.
- Make half of your grains whole. Use whole-wheat bread or oatmeal in place of refined, sugary cereals for breakfast. Feature brown rice or quinoa in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
- Pay attention to proteins. Incorporate more beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds into meals and snacks. Double up the beans next time you make chili or soups. Add nuts and seeds to yogurt or sprinkle on salads.
- Aim for at least one meatless meal a week.
By increasing consumption of high fiber foods and meeting the dietary guidelines for the recommended amount, individuals can use nutrition as a way to help reduce the risk of chronic illnesses.
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