February is American Heart Month and information about heart health is everywhere. There are many messages related to heart health and at times it can all seem daunting. There’s information about cholesterol, fat, fiber, sodium, cardiovascular exercise, strengthening exercise, portions, calories, eggs, saturated fats… whew. It is a lot to take in at once.
Trying to change a dietary behavior, especially one that we have been doing for most of our life can be hard. It is possible though; you just have to give it time and focus on one behavior change at a time. For now, let’s focus on fiber.
What is fiber? Fiber is the indigestible part of foods that pushes through our digestive system absorbing water along the way.
Why fiber? Dietary fiber is found predominately in fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, etc.) and whole grains. Dietary fiber helps regulate our digestive system, prevents or relieves constipation, lowers cholesterol and improves glucose control.
There are two types of fiber:
- Soluble fiber which slows digestion, and lowers LDL (“the bad”) cholesterol. Soluble fiber binds to and lowers cholesterol in the blood. Soluble fiber rich foods include flax seeds, barley, oat bran, beans, among others.
- Insoluble fiber which acts as a stool bulking agent and promotes regularity. Insoluble rich foods include whole wheat products, wheat bran, seeds and nuts to name a few.
How much? The recommendation is to aim for 14 g dietary fiber per 1,000 calories consumed per day. This is equivalent to about 25g of fiber per day for adult women and 38g for adult men. The usual intake of dietary fiber in the United States is only 15g/day. We’ve can do better!
The daily recommendations for most healthy adults are:
- Men ages 50 years and younger: 38 grams of fiber
- Men ages 50 and older: 30 grams of fiber
- Women 50 years and younger: 25 grams of fiber
- Women ages 50 and older: 21 grams of fiber
How to add fiber to your eating plan: You can start by slowly increasing the number of fiber rich foods you eat at every meal and snack, choosing from a variety of foods that include fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. For example:
- Eat whole fruit rather than drinking juice (you’ll reduce your sugar intake as well)
- Enjoy a variety of grains, focusing on 100% whole grains (brown rice instead of white rice, baking with whole grains, etc.)
- Eat more vegetables; add these to your meals, in soups, on a sandwich, or eat them as a snack, etc. Colorize!
- Add fiber to foods you already enjoy such as sprinkling oat bran or rice bran on cereal, adding almonds to salads, mixing flaxseed into muffins, etc.
- Include more legumes into your meals such as lentils or beans, etc.
Note: When increasing fiber in your diet, please be aware that you may experience more intestinal gas and bloating. Therefore, slowly increase the amount of fiber gradually over the course of two to three weeks to give your body time to adapt to the added fiber. As you increase your fiber intake also increase your fluid intake.
Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements. National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. 2006.
Author: Julia Salomon
Julia is a nutrition educator and corporate dietitian with Affinity Health System.