Looking to boost your health habits and improve the nutritional quality of your diet? Think about fiber.
A low-fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grain products contain fiber (particularly soluble fiber) that may lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce risk of heart disease. This type of a diet may also reduce risk for some types of cancer.
In addition, fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables helps digestion run smoothly. As an added bonus, eating high fiber foods can be filling and help satisfy appetite. Most experts recommend at least 25 to 35 grams of dietary fiber each day for adults. For children 3 to 18 years, the American Health Foundation recommends 5 grams plus age (for example, 17 grams for a 12-year-old).
If, like most Americans, you and your kids don’t meet your fiber quota, here are four tips to help you fit it in:
Go for the grain. Whole grain choices — breads, cereals, crackers and pasta — provide roughly 2 grams or more fiber per serving (a serving is 1 slice of bread, 1/2 to 1 cup cereal, 4 to 6 crackers or 1/2 cup cooked pasta).
If your family is accustomed to eating white bread and other refined foods, gradually make the switch to whole grain bread and other whole grain foods until you eat at least 2 of your bread/grain servings of breads, crackers, cereal, and other starches from whole grains (look for whole wheat or another whole grain flour such as barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rice or rye first in the ingredient list).
Strive for at least five servings of fruits and veggies. Five or more daily servings (1 small piece of raw fruit, 2 to 4 pieces of dried fruit, 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup of raw vegetables) will boost your fiber intake — with each serving providing roughly 2 grams of fiber.
Good fiber sources include fresh or dried apples, apricots, dried figs, prunes, mango, orange, pear, strawberries, raspberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, green beans, kale, okra, green peas, sweet potatoes and acorn squash.
Make no beans about it. On average, 1/2 cup of beans contains a whopping 5 grams of fiber. Black beans, butter beans, kidney (red) beans, navy beans, pinto beans and white beans are healthy, high fiber picks. Have beans a few times each week — you can mix them with brown, white or Spanish rice or ground lean meat, toss in salad or soups, or wrap with melted cheese and vegetables in a corn tortilla or taco.
Take your time. Add fiber to your diet slowly and gradually, and drink plenty of fluids along the way. This will help you and your kids minimize any gastrointestinal discomfort (bloating or gas) that can occur, and will improve your odds for maintaining these changes over time.
Fiber — Why Do We Need It?
The American Institute for Cancer Research
Dietary fiber involves many important functions that help protect our health:
It helps maintain a steady level in blood sugar and insulin;
Fiber keeps appetites satisfied longer;
It stimulates the production of substances that regulate growth of cells lining the colon — a safety guard against cancer’s out-of-control pattern of growth;
Fiber protects the lining of the colon by collecting and holding damaging bile acids; and
Fiber dilutes harmful substances, speeds their elimination — and prevents constipation in the process.
In addition to reducing cancer risk, fiber has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease. For example, in countries where the typical diet is high in fiber and low in fat compared to the average U.S. diet, people have a lower incidence of heart disease than Americans. Whole grains, an important source of dietary fiber, may also reduce the risk of stroke.
Fiber can also significantly reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity. Getting enough fiber also helps alleviate conditions related to colon function, including hemorrhoids and diverticulosis.
Fiber in Foods — The Best Sources
Animal products like meat, cheese and eggs contain no fiber. Only plant foods — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds — can provide the fiber essential to good health.
Some vegetables, fruits and grain products are higher in fiber than others. For example, a half-cup of cooked carrots has four times as much fiber as a cup of raw spinach. A medium baked potato contains more fiber than one-half cup of cooked brown rice. Whole wheat bread has twice as much fiber as white bread.
No matter what the specific foods selected, however, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans can easily ensure the daily recommended intake of fiber. Five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, plus seven servings of whole grains and beans, will not only provide essential fiber, but also the nutrients and phytochemicals that are also critical to lowering cancer risk.
Getting Fiber In The Diet — How Much, How Easy?
The American Institute for Cancer Research
Nutrition experts suggest eating between 20 and 35 grams of fiber each day. Although this may seem to represent a great deal of food to average consumers, it’s not as difficult as they might think.
According to Melanie Polk, R.D., AICR’s Director of Nutrition Education, “A day’s worth of meals can easily attain the ideal goal of 20 to 35 grams of fiber.” She describes how 30 grams of fiber could easily be included in an ordinary day’s three meals:
A breakfast that includes a cup of raisin bran cereal (7 grams) and a banana (3 grams);
A lunch sandwich of two slices of whole wheat bread (4 grams), filled with a quarter-cup of hummus (4 grams), followed by an orange (3 grams) for dessert; and
Dinner, including a small baked potato with skin (3 grams), a half-cup of mixed vegetables (4 grams) and a cup of strawberries (4 grams).
Polk observes, “The fiber in these three meals totals 32 grams, which is within the recommended range.”
Elisa S. Zied, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.